Disclaimer: Yugioh belongs to 4 Kids and various Japanese people and corporations, not to me. This story rated PG-13 for semi-graphic violence and cursing. :) I totally blame Vathara for getting me involved in this fandom... Well, her and my "big brother," Ed. At this rate, they'll have me actually playing the card game... This is set at some unidentified time after Battle City... The Noa arc didn't happen. And neither did a lot of the end of Battle City. Millennium Eye flashes There are no plot holes... these are not the droids you're looking for...

Ankoku Wa Osore Nai

This, Seto Kaiba, reflected, had not been one of his better days. Taking Mokuba to play in the park while he did some work on his laptop in the actual SUN had seemed like a good idea... Until Joey Wheeler showed up. Until their usual exchange of snide banter had been interrupted by the arrival of something that looked like it should have been on a Duel Monsters card, not walking around the real world with no holographic grid in sight. Until the bench Kaiba was sitting on had actually COME TO LIFE, wrapping its iron arms around him, holding him down to the seat.

Then it had gone straight into the toilet, as Wheeler was prone to say. Kaiba mentally slapped himself for using any phrase that came out of the other boy's mouth. And speaking of Wheeler... The other was currently facing off with the monster, placed solidly between it and Mokuba, who was currently cowering against the slide. He'd made one attempt to run from it already, only to find a wisp of shadow curled around his ankle. Kaiba'd managed to get enough freedom in his bonds to slice his brother free with a swiftly tossed card, but after that, the park bench had clamped down on him even more fiercely.

"A'right, you cut-rate Cthulu wannabe, you wanna cause trouble, I'm right here to give it to ya," Joey growled, fists clenched. Kaiba rolled his eyes. This wasn't like the tournaments, where things would be settled with cards and strategy... or the back alleys where Joey was king with his fists. Kaiba would admit- grudgingly, and only to himself- that Wheeler had evolved into a fairly impressive duelist. Nowhere near his own level, of course... but this situation was far out of even his league. They had no magic, no Millennium items... and no annoyed Egyptian Pharaoh within screaming distance. Not that Kaiba intended on screaming.

Forcing himself to calm down, Kaiba focused on the creature that had invaded the park. Like many of the monsters that decorated the cards, the creature was human-- or at least appeared so. Its skin was a deep, glossy black, and its eyes were a cold, feral yellow. The clothes it wore suggested the garb of a Pharaoh, but the colors were grey and black. A mist of black, shadowy tendrils hung behind it, wavering, quivering. Kaiba quickly looked away before he got sick.

The monster gave a cool, wavering chuckle. "Oh, how quaint. I see that brainless heroism hasn't died out in the centuries I spent in the Shadowlands." The voice was strange, almost a blend of many voices speaking in not-quite-perfect unison.

"Another Shadow Realm escapee?" Joey asked scornfully, feet shifting slightly. "What, are we having an immigration wave or somt'in'?"

"You could say that," the creature chuckled. "But where are my manners? I haven't introduced myself... You can call me the Black King. Or Master. I answer to either."

Wheeler snorted. "I got a few other things I could call ya, but not with kids present."

The Black King just laughed, and Kaiba finally realized what he found so incredibly annoying about the creature-- it reminded him of Pegasus. The same arrogant, flippant manner and the same chuckle that made you want to go up and smack the man silly. He was starting to get a really, really bad feeling about this.

"Now," the shadowy monster continued, "It took a lot of energy to get here from the Shadow Realm, and I'm really feeling quite peckish. Step out of my way, please, and I'll permit you to leave with your mind intact."

Joey's response was enough to make Mokuba go bright red, and Kaiba's eyebrows both rose. The Black King just shook its head.

"I don't believe that's physically possible, though it would be interesting to try. However, since you obviously seem determined to get in my way... Shadow of Fear!"

Black shapes streaked towards the blond teen, surrounding him in a cocoon of shadow. The dark mist quickly dissipated, but Joey remained frozen, staring into nothing with eyes fixed on some invisible horror, pupils constricted to almost nothing. He didn't even react as the creature swept past him, heading straight for Mokuba. The boy tried to run, but was quickly swept up by the shadows that trailed the Black King.

"Lemme go, you big bully!" Mokuba yelled, rather formidable for someone upside down. His captor only laughed, as the boy was surrounded by a rapidly darkening corona of light.

"Mmm... fear, quite tasty. Although I AM disappointed. Children's fears are usually so pure... uncomplicated. Yours are so knotted I can barely get a grip. Then again... you're a Kaiba. I suppose I should never have expected you to be a child." Contemptuously, the creature tossed Mokuba aside. Hitting the pavement, the boy bounced, his limbs flopping like those of a rag doll.

"Well, your fear may not sustain me... but in a pinch, I suppose your life force will do. Spear of Darkness!" A pointed shadow raced towards the slowly recovering boy.

"MOKUBA!" Kaiba's scream mixed with the shattering of his bonds, but even as he began to move, he knew he wouldn't make it in time.

He didn't-- but Joey did. Kaiba's scream had pulled him out of his fear trance, and Joey Wheeler reacted as he always did... instinctively, faster than thought. One desperate lunge put him between Mokuba and the speeding projectile just in time for it to strike home in his stomach, rather than the younger Kaiba's heart.

Time seemed to slow as Joey's eyes widened, the shock of the pain rushing through him. Then he fell into a pair of strong arms that lowered him to the pavement.


Joey blinked. Kaiba? Seto Kaiba was kneeling beside him on the playground cement? Wouldn't that get his pants dirty or someth- Joey's thoughts were cut off by a sudden stab of pain from his abdomen, and he let out a ragged cry.

"Wheeler, stop moving. Now tell me, how bad is it?"

"D'nt... know y' cared," Joey puffed, trying to ignore the pain in his gut.

Kaiba's response was dry. "I don't. I simply would prefer NOT to have a certain Pharaoh banish the rest of me to the Shadow Realm as well."

Joey's laugh was a flat, ugly crack of sound, and even that pulled at his stomach. Kaiba gave him an exasperated look.

"What part of 'remain still' is giving you trouble?" Then his expression softened slightly. "And... why?"

"S'not... cause I like you. Still don't like you." Joey's breath was coming in pants now as Mokuba slowly pulled himself to their sides. "But... I know what it's like... being a big brother."

"How touching." The Black King's tone was light, mocking. "Such sentiment... I believe I may throw up."

Eyes icing over, Kaiba threw one of his best glares at the monster. It, of course, had no visible effect. Damn it! The wound in Joey's stomach was deep, but not mortal. Assuming Kaiba could keep him from bleeding to death and get him to the hospital before peritonitis set in. But there wasn't anything he could do against this thing. He had no magical Millennium Item to call forth a dark spirit, nothing but the Duel Monsters deck thumping uselessly against his side. And outside a ring, those decks were useless against a real, living Monster-- wait. What was it that Yami had said about the origins of the game?

They used to call it "The Shadow Game," and it was played for REAL. Real monsters, real magic, back in the days of the Pharaohs. The priests played for power, for politics... for high stakes. And in those days, you didn't need a Millennium Item to play.

The Heart of the Cards. A kind of magic in and of itself. He'd felt it once himself. He'd seen Wheeler use it, and even Mokuba a time or two. So Duel Monsters, even in its present incarnation, held a little magic all its own. But was it enough?

Kaiba's eyes took on the aspect of glacial ice. It had to be. He was no Pharaoh, to crush evil and send it back to the darkness... but just maybe...

"Mokuba. Keep pressure on the wound... here." Reaching out, Kaiba guided his little brother's hands to cover the hole in Joey's abdomen.

Standing up, Kaiba turned to the Black King, who was watching him with expectant eyes. Sliding one hand into his pocket, Kaiba traced the edges of his Duel Deck. Then he smiled.

"Let's play a game."

The Black King laughed. "A Duel? Oh, it's been so long... I accept! And as the challenged..."

The dark glow intensified. "I go first."

"Let's see just what you're afraid of! Shadow of Fear!" Black mist whipped out, encircling Kaiba, then coalescing around him into a dark cloud. Rather than freeze as Joey had, however, Seto broke into a thin, cold laugh. Around him, the cloud slowly drifted away.

"You don't get it, do you...? I HAVE no fear!" Not when dueling, anyway... If nothing else, I have to thank that bastard Gozaburo... When I'm concentrating, even the fear goes away. Deliberately he refused to think about his brother, kneeling helplessly as Joey Wheeler bled his life onto the dirty cement. Mokuba would NOT have to live with the image of Wheeler's death... and he himself would not have to live owing Wheeler a debt.

"Now I think it's YOUR turn to know fear!" Without even looking, Seto dealt himself a hand of five cards. This wasn't a true duel- therefore the rules only loosely applied. But to be honest, a five-card hand was about the most he could expect to manage. Looking down at the cards in his hand, his eyes widened. There, directly in the center, were all three of his prize Blue Eyes White Dragons. He barely even noticed the other two cards-- magic card Dragon Heart, which gave a power up to all Dragons on the field, and Yugi's perennial favorite trap, Mirror Force. All his attention was fixed on those three sets of sapphire eyes.

:We are here, Seto Kaiba. For you, we have come. Call us forth, master:

Seto didn't even blink at the tripartite voice echoing in his head. Since entering this duel, he'd shoved his skepticism aside- he'd come to terms with it later. Right now everything relied on faith, and Seto Kaiba never did things halfway.


Lightning ripped through the dark sky, echoed by thunder cracks as loud as bomb blasts. The ionized air seemed to glow as three white forms coalesced from the energy, and Seto stared, heart in his throat, as the monsters that haunted his dreams became solid, real, more so than any hologram could be.


And the dragons unleashed hell.

When the crackling energy died away, the air was blue and heavy with the scent of ozone. The concrete of the playground had melted in spots where the heat had been too intense. And of the Black King... there was no sign.

Somehow, Seto didn't think he'd seen the last of the creature... but he was too tired to care. A gentle nudge from one of his dragons nearly knocked him over.

:The danger is past... for now: one voice said, deep and old.

/Remain vigilant, Dragon Master/ said the second, as another dragon nudged him carefully.

(Remember, we are always with you,) finished the third, its voice sounding almost as young as Mokuba. Then all three dragons dissolved into white smoke, returning to the Duel Deck.

Dragon Master... Kaiba shook his head, turning away from the battlefield. He'd think about it later. Or, more accurately, he'd work himself into an appropriately comfortable state of denial. But first things first... Pulling his cell phone out of his pocket, he squinted at the suddenly blurry buttons. Okay... not a problem. A good CEO knew how to delegate.

"Mokuba," Seto managed, handing the small phone to his younger brother. "Call the hospital... I believe we need an ambulance." Then Seto Kaiba passed out.

His head hurt. Not so much from the aftermath of the duel-- that had been mere exhaustion; and an hour's sleep had easily cured that. Nor was it from the doctor who had attempted to keep him overnight "for observation." One good "duelist's glare" had sent the man babbling off to retrieve the discharge papers. It wasn't even the dragons who kept dropping comments into his head, identifying themselves, from oldest to youngest, as Kochi, Taiyuu, and Shijun, respectively. No, this headache had a very specific cause-- a short, wide-eyed, overly NICE cause named Yugi Moto. Who was waiting for him in the hallway of Domino General. And to top it all off, the younger teen had the gall to look amused at the effect Kaiba'd had on the hospital staff.

"Yugi." Something inside him relaxed slightly under that violet gaze, despite his best intentions. "What are you doing here?"

"Well, Mr. Wheeler's... unavailable so much, Grandpa sort of wound up as Joey's contact person. When you guys brought him in, the hospital called. Mokuba filled me in while we were waiting for you to wake up."

Brown eyebrows rose. "Mokuba?"

One of Yugi's hands slipped up to touch the golden pyramid that hung around his neck. "Kaiba. You fought a card duel- an ACTUAL duel- in the middle of Domino, with a real monster. The concrete was slagged. This was something we needed to know."

Something in the smaller boy's tone told Seto that Yugi's speech was a probably more diplomatic wording of a sentiment from Yami. The spirit was arrogant and insufferably smug at times, but he DID have a point. Seto acknowledged that with a nod, then quickly changed the subject.

"I would have thought you'd be hovering over Wheeler," Kaiba said, folding his arms across his chest. Yugi chuckled.

"They just put him in a room a little while ago. He lost a lot of blood, but the surgery went without a hitch. They're not letting him have visitors until he gets a little more settled, though. Come on; Mokuba and Grandpa are down in the waiting area."

With a sigh, Seto let himself be led down the hall. He was just going to retrieve Mokuba, not to join the vigil over the mutt. Yes, he was somewhat relieved to know that the other would be all right; after all, he DID owe him for saving Mokuba, and Seto Kaiba always repaid his debts. Right. So maybe he'd stay for a little while, just until the puppy was settled in his room. Just to make sure he could repay his debt.

(Ever hear of that river in Egypt? DE-Nile?) Shijun teased. Seto resisted the urge to growl at the dragon. He'd just gotten out of the emergency room... he had no desire to visit the hospital's psychiatric ward.

A shrill beeping sound split the air, as nurses and doctors dashed down the hall, one of them pushing a crash cart. The words "Code Blue" floated back to Kaiba and Yugi, chilling the pair's blood.

"Kaiba," Yugi croaked, violet eyes wide. "That's Joey's room!"

In the darkness of the hospital room, Joey Wheeler swam lazily up to consciousness. He was warm and comfortable, and it almost felt as if he was floating. Okay, so if he so much as twitched, his stomach hurt, but it was a quiet, far-away hurt, and hey, he didn't really wanna move anyway.

Okay, Joey, you are severely hopped up on painkillers... Mmm, wonder what they're givin' me... good stuff... Outside he could hear voices, ones he faintly recognized as belonging to Yugi and his grandfather. Good... Yugi needed to know about that freak from the playground, and Kaiba sure as hell wasn't gonna tell him. Not when he'd done the equivalent of hauling Exodia out of his butt to blow the thing away. Everybody else knew Kaiba had some type of power, but of course Mr. Control didn't even believe in magic. Getting him to accept that he could pull that type of power out of the air...

Whoa, listen ta me. Yeesh, I'm gonna start spouting Freud any minute now... stupid drugs...


Joey's eyes sprang open. He hadn't heard that. He really hadn't heard that. Just like he wasn't seeing the shadows in the room pool together at the foot of his bed and... rise up... and... Oh shit.

Denial was quickly abandoned. No way was this the drugs. Unlike Kaiba, Joey had never seen the use in denying what he was seeing, no matter HOW little he believed it. Okay, moving was out... no way could he even roll over without ripping his stitches. Call button... right. One arm crossed the light-years to the button, stabbing at it repeatedly. No sound... no light.

Riiiight. Not that easy. Okay, plan b. Said plan being "scream for Yami like a little girl." Unfortunately, the cry caught in his throat, but that was okay. The heart monitor beside him was doing enough screaming for both of them. Now if he could just avoid dying until Yami got there...

The Black King leaned over Joey, cold yellow eyes boring into wide brown ones.

"No words of defiance, hero? Pity... I so enjoyed your sense of humor."

Joey still couldn't force words out of his mouth, but his eyes darted quickly to the door, where muted light and hushed voices still filtered through the slight crack left open there. The monster followed his gaze, laughing as he saw its intent.

"Oh... don't expect the Pharaoh to come to your rescue any time soon. Yes, Joey Wheeler, I know who you are. I know much about you, including your friendship with one named Yugi. And you will be the tool I need... to finally destroy that meddlesome boy-king once and for all."

Despite his weakness, Joey managed a fierce glare, shaking his head frantically. With a contemptuous smirk, the monster grabbed his head, forcing Joey's eyes to meet his.

"You WILL... and in return, I give you eternity... in darkness." A black cloud seeped from the creature's skin, creeping into Joey's nose, eyes and open mouth. His breathing hitched, then slowed, his heartbeat falling as well. The light left Joey's eyes as the Black King melted back into the darkness of the room. Then, all was still. The heart monitor's tone echoed unbroken as alarms went off in the outside hall. To all intents and purposes, Joseph Wheeler was dead. But one crystal tear slid silently down a cold cheek.

When the alarms went off, all Yugi and Kaiba could do was stare in shock for a moment. Then Yugi took off after the doctors, only dimly aware of Kaiba close behind. It COULDN'T be Joey, they'd said he was going to be fine. He'd lost a lot of blood, yes, but it hadn't injured his heart, he was supposed to make a full recovery. In the back of his mind, Yugi could feel Yami's worry niggling at his own. Yami had been... skittish ever since he'd heard Mokuba's description of the monster, but with his scattered memories, the spirit couldn't really tell why. All Yugi knew was that it wasn't just Joey's condition that had his other self worried.

Yugi'd barely made it to the hospital room when an agonized cry made him stop short. This was a good thing, because at that moment, a doctor flew backwards out of the door to Joey's room, smacking hard into the wall opposite. Yugi hesitated only a second then stepped over the unconscious man to enter the room. Joey was what was important right now. Joey was... out of bed?

It was true. Yugi stared in shock as his taller friend casually wiped an arm across his mouth, smearing something red along the sleeve of the white coat he had apparently taken from one of the doctors who lay unconscious all around him. Joey looked completely uninjured, as if the scene in the park had never happened. Looking up from the carnage around him, Joey saw Yugi staring at him, and grinned. The sight made Yugi take several steps back.

"Ey, Yug," Joey said cheerfully, buttoning the coat around him. "Hope you don't mind, but those little gowns get pretty drafty in the back, know what I'm sayin?"

Yugi blinked. "Joey... isn't that a doctor's jacket?"

"So? He ain't using it right now." Seeing the younger boy's stricken expression Joey shook his head. "No, he's breathin'. They all are, don't worry about it, Yug. Relax."

"RELAX?" Yugi's pitch was creeping up into the dog-whistle ranges. Behind him, he could vaguely sense Kaiba waiting in the doorway; watching-- but far more of his attention was on Joey. "You're standing in the middle of a throng of unconscious doctors, standing up after losing almost three pints of blood, not to mention undergoing stomach surgery, I think I just saw you wipe blood off your mouth, and you want me to RELAX?"

"Yugi... come on. I'm your best friend, right?" Joey took a step forward, only to be driven back by a sudden surge of light from the Millennium Puzzle. Yugi laid a hand on it, feeling the force of Yami's thoughts against his own.

/Yugi... there's something wrong. Let me come forward, and don't look into his eyes/

He didn't understand... but he hadn't lived this long by distrusting the spirit. Letting go of the reins, he stepped back into his own mind, letting Yami take control.

Joey obviously noticed the change, for a sullen expression suddenly swept over his features. Folding his arms over his chest, the blond teen let his gaze move from Yami to Kaiba, who still stood in the door.

"Well, if it ain't the Dueling Bozos. To what do I owe the honor of this visit?" Sarcasm rendered Joey's words so precise that his accent almost disappeared.

Yami raised one eyebrow. "You're in the hospital, Joey... although at the moment you don't look as though you need medical care. Why wouldn't we be here? We're your friends."

"Friends?" Joey's laugh was dark. "Oh, that's a good one. Y'know, I think I figured out why you two fight all the time... you're too damn similar. You don't give a damn about anything... 'cept your little "brothers." And that's only because they think you walk on water... they'll do anything you say."

The look of confusion on Yami's face, Kaiba mused, was perhaps the most honest expression he'd seen on the other's face to date. Yami wasn't one for showing his emotions openly.

"Joey... do you really believe that?"

"You don't care about us! We're just another set of chess pieces to you! And Kaiba... hell, the only reason he cared about me bleeding to death was that I was staining his trench coat!"

The spirit shook his head. "You're mistaken, Joey. Something is affecting you... let us help." Taking a step forward, Yami extended his hand. At his approach, Joey recoiled, hissing in mingled pain and fear. Lips drew back from his teeth, exposing a pair of sharp, glistening fangs. Yami stopped, as Yugi's awe-struck voice echoed in his mind.

/A vampire.../

Yami's face softened as Yugi's personality inadvertently came forward. The shocked reaction came from one set of lips, but two minds in unison.


A commotion outside heralded the arrival of hospital security. Joey's mouth twisted scornfully.

"We'll settle this later, PHARAOH," the vampire sneered. "And you better believe it's gonna be final." Then Joey broke the window open with one casual punch, and leapt out into the darkness, leaving Yami and Kaiba behind.

They weren't going home tonight. That was crystal clear, although, Seto thought wryly, not much else was. But Joey knew where he lived and, vampire or not, something had obviously given the other boy enhanced physical strength and speed. Kaiba had seen what Joey and Tristan could do to bullies and goons just with their normal abilities; several of Pegasus' well-trained henchmen had been significantly wary of the pair after Duelist Kingdom. And, though he hated to admit it, the mutt was quick-thinking and a good strategist. With his new abilities, Joey would easily be a match for his security forces.

So where to go? Kaiba Corp was out, obviously, for the same reasons as the mansion. Solomon Moto had offered both of them beds for the night, but after a second's thought, Kaiba had refused, though as politely as he could manage. Yugi still seemed in shock from Joey's transformation, and the old man would have his hands full with both Yugi and Yami attempting to process this. Not to mention that Joey had indicated Yami was also a target. No, best to just get out of the line of fire and hope he could finally sit down and make sense out of all this.

The elder Moto had surprisingly enough offered Kaiba the use of the Game Shop's van, and this, Kaiba had accepted. If he and Mokuba were hiding, using the limo would just be stupid. It had been a while since he had driven himself last, but he made a point to stay in practice. And at this time of night, no one was really on the streets of Domino City anyway.

A storm had rolled in sometime while they were in the hospital, and rain pattered quietly on the van's windows and roof as Kaiba guided it through the empty streets. Beside him, Mokuba sat quiet in the passenger's seat, staring out at the passing streetlights. A quick glance at his younger brother revealed dark circles beginning to show under wide, staring eyes. No surprise there... Mokuba had been under a lot of stress since the events in the park-- had it only been this afternoon? It seemed more like years. And between the shadowy monster and what Mokuba had heard of Joey's transformation, it was unlikely the younger boy would be finding sleep anytime soon.

"Seto?" Mokuba's voice was small, but startling in the stillness.


"Are you mad at me for telling Yugi what happened?"

The elder Kaiba shook his head, not taking his gaze from the road. "No. If I had been, what happened to Wheeler would have changed that anyway. This IS something we needed to tell them. You did exactly right."

"Good." The younger brother was quiet for a while, and then spoke up again.

"Is Joey really a vampire?"

Seto's knuckles whitened as his grip tightened on the steering wheel. "I don't believe in vampires." An honest answer, if an evasive one.

"Then... what happened to him?"

"I don't know, Mokuba. I really don't."

Blue-grey eyes stared out at the rain. "This is the second time he's been hurt for me."

I know it. And it was driving him nuts. He didn't want to respect the mutt. He REALLY didn't want to like him. But not only did Joey risk his life for Mokuba, he had never attempted to use that fact as leverage. The Kaiba name, and the wealth and power it commanded, meant nothing to Joey. He protected Mokuba because he liked the boy, because he cared about him. It wasn't something Seto could understand... but he appreciated it nonetheless.

"Seto, where are we going?"

"I've got a little vacation place on the other side of town," his brother replied, swinging the car carefully around another turn. No tails sighted, and he didn't expect one, but it always paid to be cautious. "Owned through three or four other companies. We'll lie low there for a few days."

"You expect him to come after us."

The truth, Seto. You never lie to Mokuba-- sometimes honesty was all you had to give him.

The brown-haired Kaiba sighed. "Wheeler and I have never made a secret of our antagonism. And given how he was treating Yami, who would be considered his friend... I thought it was just best to be prepared." And it helps stop that nagging itch in the back of my head.

:It's called 'intuition,' hatchling: rumbled Kochi. :You should pay attention to it. Many a life has been saved by a hunch.:

I do not need playing cards lecturing me right now, Seto shot back, careful to keep his expression neutral. He didn't want Mokuba asking any awkward questions just yet. What I need is a shower, clean clothes, and a good night's sleep, in that order.

/What you need is a good swift whack with a stick/ Taiyuu chimed in.

(Yeah, the CLUE stick,) added Shijun. Seto rolled his eyes.

Look, I put up with this from Yugi and Yami, I don't need it from you three as well. Especially not right now! So go play with your treasure hoards or something and leave me alone!

A rude noise echoed in his mind, then nothing but silence. Seto fought to keep from bashing his head against the steering wheel. At this rate, he might BEG Joey to kill him... if the damn dragons didn't do it first.

Ack. I feel like a drowned rat, Mai Valentine thought, running one hand through soaked blonde hair. It had been a clear, warm evening when she'd left for the meeting with the endorsement group, so she hadn't thought to bring an umbrella. Now she was dripping on the floor of the elevator. Still, the evening had gone very well... there was now a fat check sitting in her bank account. She hadn't been lying to Joey when she'd told him how lucrative Dueling could be.

Joey. Mai frowned, as the anxiety she'd been feeling came back. She hadn't seen him since the end of the Battle City tournament. That had been a strange situation. Egyptian artifacts, evil spirits, magic... and all of it centering on Duel Monsters. After everything she'd seen, she wasn't going to rule out anything as being impossible. But she didn't know WHY she was so jumpy-- It was just that something about this storm felt wrong. Unnatural. And if something was weird in Domino City, it was a sure bet that Joey and his friends were mixed up in it somehow.

Mai shook off her thoughts as she let herself into her apartment. She could worry about that in the morning. Right now all she wanted was a hot shower, a hot bowl of ramen, and to go to bed. Not to mention to get out of her dueling clothes. The shirt was practically transparent, and the denim was starting to chafe.

Much later, warm, clean, and dressed in a t-shirt and comfortable shorts, Mai wrapped a towel around her hair and headed for her tiny kitchen for something to eat. She didn't quite make it, though. The sight of someone sitting on her living room couch stopped her cold. She barely bit back a scream, but relaxed when she saw who it was.

"Joey? What are you doing in MY apartment? And at this time of night?" A thought struck her, and her eyes narrowed. "And just how did you get in? I locked the door!"

The blond just grinned, twirling something slim and silver around two fingers. "You need better locks, Mai, that's all I'm gonna say. As to why I'm here..." his face turned serious. "I need a favor."

"A favor? Joey... are you in some kind of trouble?" Something was wrong here. Mai felt a prickling along her spine. Joey seemed too still, too contained. None of his usual energy radiating out in all directions. And why couldn't she see his eyes? His bangs weren't that thick, but there seemed to be more shadow under them than usual.

"You could kinda say that." Joey pushed to his feet in one fluid motion. "Look, Mai... I know we usually fight, but I know you're a great duelist. Not as good as Yugi... or Kaiba, probably, but then nobody is. I know you're better than me. And well... I really need your help."

Mai cocked her head, absently unwinding her towel as she did so. "You know I'm always willing to help you guys... but why do you need duelists? There's no tournament coming up."

Shaking his head, Joey moved closer, circling her slightly as he did so. "Nah, this isn't a tournament, in the normal sense, anyway. It's a lot bigger game, with a lot bigger stakes." Moving behind her, Joey brushed a hand against the small of her back. "You like high stakes, don't you, Mai?"

"I... Joey, what are you doing? This is NOT like you."

Mai gasped as Joey's hands came to rest on her hips, pulling her back against his body. Hot breath hit her ear as he spoke, and she shivered, her eyes slipping closed involuntarily.

"Biggest game of the century, Mai... maybe the millennium. You wanna be in on it, right? To help me? After all, we DO make a great team..." Joey nuzzled her neck gently, and Mai swallowed hard. She'd always thought Joey was kind of cute, but this... this sensuality was totally new. It was blowing her out of the water, but... it was wrong.

"Joey... no. This isn't like you. What is going ON here?" Pulling out of his grip, Mai turned around. Face to face, she stared into Joey's eyes... and screamed. Instead of warm, mischievous brown, the eyes that greeted her were blood red, and glowing with an internal light. With a growl, Joey slapped one hand over her mouth, cutting off her scream. Faster than Mai could blink, he spun her around into his grasp, his free arm clamping hers to her sides with an iron grip. Tilting Mai's head to the side, he used his chin to brush damp blonde hair away from her neck.

"I tried to be nice about this, Mai. I need another duelist to help me make sure my master's plans go through. And you're the best I know." Out of the corner of her eye, Mai could see the gleam of bared fangs, and she struggled harder, but Joey's grip was unbreakable.

"Settle down, gorgeous... I promise, this won't hurt a bit." Then his fangs sank home. Mai's eyes widened for a second, then slid closed. She relaxed against Joey as he fed, finally going limp in his arms.

Joey wiped the blood from his mouth, then gently picked Mai up in his arms and carried her into the bedroom. Setting her down on her bed, he pressed his lips to hers in a surprisingly soft kiss. A bit of shadowy mist slid from his mouth into hers, and she sighed slightly, shifting under him.

Backing away, Joey stood up straight. It was done. Mai would still be human- - she'd need to taste his blood to become a vampire, and he didn't want that. Not yet, at least. But with that wisp of shadow in her veins, she'd bound to him, to his call. And he'd need her, if he was gonna deal with Kaiba and Yami. Turning to go, he stopped at the door, looking over his shoulder. Then with a sigh, he returned to the bed, pulling the blankets up and over the sleeping girl.

"Sweet dreams, Mai," he whispered. Then he was gone.

Exhaustion had finally won out over nervousness, and Mokuba was now warmly ensconced in the back bedroom of the four-room cottage, buried under enough blankets to make a casual observer think he was just another lump in a poorly made bed. Mokuba hadn't actually made it there-- he'd fallen asleep halfway through getting into his pajamas. Seto hadn't had the heart to wake him, so he'd simply pulled Mokuba's pajama top over his head and tucked his sleeping brother into the bed, which Mokuba had immediately burrowed into. The back bedroom had no windows, no way in other than the door, so Seto felt secure leaving Mokuba there to sleep. Still, he stood in the doorway for a long moment, watching the lump in the bed rise and fall with Mokuba's breathing. Finally, he turned away, careful not to shut to door completely. He didn't think either he or Mokuba would be sleeping in the total dark tonight. Maybe not for some time to come.

Sinking down onto the couch, Kaiba let out a dark chuckle. He hadn't slept with a nightlight since before the orphanage. Funny how most of his real nightmares had begun after he'd left it. And why the hell was he thinking about Gozaburo again? The bastard was dead and gone, and good riddance. Seto doubted that even the worms would touch him... probably give them indigestion. Then there'd been Pegasus, and Malik... and now this Black King. For the first time in a long time, Seto Kaiba was remembering WHY he'd once been afraid of the dark.

His laptop sat on the coffee table before him, currently running an Internet search for any mention of the Black King, especially in combination with vampires. It galled him, but he had to admit that there was no other word for what Joey had become. Checking the results so far, Seto couldn't hold back a slight smirk. His reputation as a hacker notwithstanding, it was a fact that the quickest and easiest way to run a search was still Google. Even if it was faster to read the damn thing in English than to run a translation program.

Tapping at the keyboard with one hand, Seto used the other to grab his cup of coffee and take a big gulp. Caffeine was no substitute for sleep, true, but somehow Seto had a feeling sleep would be a luxury for the next few nights. He'd do research for a while, then crash for four or five hours once the sun came up. Not that he was CERTAIN sunlight would be a barrier to Joey, but that was the one aspect of the legend that was consistent almost across the board, so he was willing to risk it.

Mmm... Seto chewed his lip as he typed. The problem with an international search was that translation programs only took you so far. Words had their own meanings quite aside from what you could find in the dictionary, and there wasn't necessarily a correlation. English was particularly bad, and unfortunately, it was what a good half of his sources were written in. The creature had identified itself in Japanese, and the English translation could be black or dark, king, prince, or a hundred other types of--

"Shimatta." Kaiba cursed softly, smacking his hand to his forehead. The damn thing had said "ou"... that hadn't meant "king," it meant Pharaoh. Stopping his current search, he quickly set the computer to search for Black or Dark Pharaoh. His eyes widened as he watched the results start pouring in. And most of them said the same thing-- very, VERY bad news. Many of them suggested the same link-- an American company said to deal with such matters. For a second, Kaiba seriously considered it, but... no. Too much chance that they would find out about the Millennium items and the last thing any of them needed at this point was one MORE band of power- seekers trying to get their hands on the things. Even if it WAS rather fun watching Yami turn treasure-hunters interesting colors.

Setting his computer for a more intense search, Seto set the laptop aside and laid his head back against the couch. Okay, it looked as if this Black King was a very bad character, which would explain why Yami had actually gone PALE, according to Yugi, when the creature had been described. The question was, what were they going to do about it? He had no illusions that the creature had chosen to attack them in the park by random chance. Like it or not, he was involved up to his eyeballs in this. He just wished could make SENSE out of all this... Sense that didn't involve ghosts, magic, and ancient dragons.


No offense. The beginnings of a real smile touched his face before he caught it. He was way too tired. Maybe he should just cut out the caffeine, go in and lie down next to Mokuba. Even though there were two bedrooms in the cottage, Seto knew he wouldn't be able to sleep without being next to his little brother.

The thud was barely audible, but it was enough to bring Seto rolling off the couch to his feet. The front door was still closed; that left the kitchen, or the second bedroom. Settling into a fighting stance, Seto inched closer to the lamp that lit the living room. Having the light on made him a sitting duck, but if it was Joey out there, then turning it out would probably only put him at a disadvantage.

"Show yourself," Seto commanded, refusing to let any fear creep into his voice. He had to stay in command of this situation, or he was already lost.

"Well, since you asked so NICELY," Joey Wheeler drawled, seeming to almost materialize out of the darkness of the kitchen. "Nice little bolt-hole you got here, Kaiba. You need to go to ground a lot?"

Seto shifted his feet, relaxing only slightly. Joey was strong normally, and a skilled fighter. With enhanced strength, he was going to really be in for it.

"How'd you find me?"

The vampire chuckled. "Wasn't hard. Just had to follow the smell of old blood and pain. You STINK, you know? Way I figure, someone used you for a punching bag a long time ago, and you ain't never really got over it. Lotta scar tissue there."

"Is this psychoanalysis going somewhere?" Outwardly, Seto forced himself to look bored; inwardly he was reeling from Joey's casual assessment.

"Yeah... You know, you and me got a lot in common. You think like a gutter fighter, Kaiba. For all the money and power you got, you're still street, just like me. Yami still thinks like he's playing a chess match. You and me, we know there aren't any rules. And that makes you dangerous." A mirthless grin flashed needle sharp fangs. "And you know I can't leave a threat standing."

"I know something else we have in common too, Wheeler... We've all got something to fight for. Or have you forgotten about Serenity now that she's had her operation?" Seto had the satisfaction of seeing Joey's expression waver. "You took a spear through the stomach for Mokuba, because you knew what it was like being a big brother. Are you just going to let her go on without you to protect her?"

"Hey, Serenity is none of your business, Kaiba. I can still take care of her."

Seto smirked, circling the couch as Joey moved closer to him. "I don't think you can, puppy. After all, you've got kind of a problem with sunshine now, don't you? No more brother/sister trips to the beach. But I do owe you for saving Mokuba. So I promise, Serenity will never want for anything ever again. I won't let anything happen to her."

Joey's only response was a snarl as he launched himself forward. Seto barely managed to dodge the lunge, helping Joey's momentum along with a heel-hand strike to the back of the head. Joey went down, but managed to roll to his feet, sweeping a heel kick towards Kaiba's head. The CEO barely managed to duck, coming back with an uppercut to Joey's stomach. It was like punching a sack of wet cement. Snapping a palm strike to Joey's chin gave Kaiba enough time to gain his feet, but it wasn't enough to react as Joey's fist came plowing into Seto's gut. Somehow Seto managed to kick out, knocking Joey's feet out from under him. Unfortunately, the vampire managed to pull his opponent down with him.

They rolled around on the floor for a few more minutes, trading blows, but Joey finally managed to pin Kaiba to the floor by his shoulders. Breathing heavily, Seto stared up at the vampire with defiant blue eyes, trying not to let on how much Joey's hungry red gaze disconcerted him.

"Man, I've been looking forward to this for ages... All that magic in your blood is gonna taste SO good... And I finally get to make YOU squirm under MY boot. Bye bye, Kaiba." And Joey bit.

It didn't hurt. That was all Seto could think as he felt Joey's fangs sink into his neck. It was more like a whole body electric shock... but there was no pain, only an intense jolt. Then a pulling feeling, as if something intangible was being drawn out of him. Colors pulsed before his vision, and Seto felt his eyes slip closed. He knew he was probably going to die, but that didn't seem that important right now. He was just so tired...

"Big brother?" Both Joey and Seto looked up at Mokuba's startled exclamation. The twelve year old stood in the door to his bedroom, staring at them both. His long black hair stuck out in all directions, only intensifying the look of horror on his face.

Joey pulled away from Seto, wiping the blood from his mouth as he did so. His expression softened as he looked at the younger Kaiba. "Mokuba... I..."

The boy took a step forward, wide blue eyes still fixed on Joey. "Please... Joey... Don't hurt my brother."

The vampire's expression was almost sad as he stood up. "Little late for that, kid... but he'll live. Better call the hospital, though." Turning, he walked back into the shadows as Mokuba raced for the phone.

"This is getting to be a habit."

In his hospital bed, Seto Kaiba folded his arms, aiming a glare at the rather smug Pharaoh currently leaning against the nearest wall. It apparently wasn't one of his better efforts; Yami's smirk wasn't even dented, and Mokuba was stifling giggles. Kaiba threw his younger brother an exasperated glance, but couldn't keep it up.

At least he wasn't stuck wearing one of those stupid hospital gowns. While the emergency room had piped a couple pints of blood into him the night before, Mokuba had phoned the Game Shop, summoning Yugi and his grandfather for help. While Solomon had retrieved the van left outside the safe house, Yugi had escorted Mokuba back to the mansion to pick the elder Kaiba up a pair of sweats. Not that he didn't appreciate the change of clothes, but his list of debts to the Moto family was beginning to get out of control.

"You don't owe us anything, Kaiba," Yami broke in, reading the older teen's expression with that annoying accuracy of his. "You should know that by now."

"Yugi, would you mind reining in your dark half? He's beginning to chew on the furniture." Seto's voice was cool, expressionless. Beside him, Mokuba rolled his eyes, but said nothing.

A subtle shift of posture and the ruby gleam faded from violet eyes that suddenly seemed larger, softer. Seto relaxed. He much preferred talking to Yugi, though he'd never admit that out loud. There were fewer biting personality assessments, for one thing.

"How ARE you feeling?" Yugi asked, unfolding his arms. "You gave us all a pretty good scare."

"My head hurts, which the doctors say is common with blood loss. If I pass the attending physician's exam, they'll release me this afternoon, provided I promise to rest.

"Good," Yugi replied cheerfully. "Grandpa's already got the guest room made up for you, and the van's in the parking lot, so I can drive us all back as soon as you're out."

Kaiba opened his mouth to reply, then stopped. Something Yugi apparently HAD picked up from his tenant was the ability to steamroller over anyone and anything in his way, although the light half was generally very cheerful and polite about it. The smaller boy was smiling now, but something in that expression told Kaiba not to even bother disagreeing.

This was ridiculous. He was the CEO of Kaiba Corporation, and one of the most feared businessmen in the Fortune 500. He was an accomplished duelist, ruthless, steel-willed, heart of ice. There was no way he was going to be bullied into anything by Yugi Moto. He was invincible. He was... getting puppy eyes in stereo from Yugi and Mokuba. Damn it... Yugi was sixteen! He wasn't supposed to be able to DO that anymore!

Oh, hell, why not? Not like he'd managed to avoid Joey that well anyway, and if there was anyone in Domino City whose house was likely to be vampire- proof, it was Solomon Moto. The old man had been places Kaiba had never heard of, and probably never wanted to.

"You can drive?" Kaiba inquired instead, raising one eyebrow. "I didn't think you were able to reach the pedals." The purple glare shot his way was surprisingly acidic. The CEO permitted himself a small smirk.

Yugi shook his head. "Okay, okay. Look, I know you well enough to know you've been researching. What have you found out? We're all involved in this, like it or not. We need to put our heads together."

The other sighed, but nodded. "Point taken. Okay, on the vampire question, there are enough legends to keep us busy from now until Doomsday trying to find the truth of them. Every culture has its own version of the story, and they differ in as many ways as they agree. About the only universals are that they're nocturnal, and that they drink blood." Kaiba winced as one hand drifted up to touch the bandage on his neck. "That's been confirmed empirically."

"Seto," Mokuba scolded. "The doctor told you to leave it alone, or you could start bleeding again."

"Sorry, Mokuba. Anyway, our best bet is to concentrate on the Black King angle. I've started downloading some research material to my laptop, but Joey... interrupted me before I could really read over it. The thing obviously has some type of Egyptian connection, though." Quickly, Kaiba outlined his linguistic deductions of the night before.

Yugi nodded as he processed the information. "Mmm. Maybe Bakura knows something about this thing. He's got access to a lot of old Egyptian legends through his dad."

"Speaking of, Yugi, where's the rest of your merry men? With Wheeler missing, I'd have expected Taylor to be threatening to rearrange my internal organs by now."

"Tea had a dance audition in Tokyo, and Tristan went with her to make sure she was safe, and for moral support. They're supposed to be back today sometime... guess we'll have to fill them in then."

Kaiba snorted. "I'll leave that to you. Magic and mayhem is more your department."

Ruby flashed in violet eyes as Yugi's posture straightened.

"This coming from a man capable of summoning three Blue Eyes Whites?" Yami inquired, raising one eyebrow.

Seto groaned inwardly. Not the eyebrow; it meant Yami was about to say something devastatingly accurate. Outwardly, however, he remained cool. "I have the cards."

"And you have their hearts, too. They're far more than just cards, Kaiba. I can see their traces in your aura. You've seen the Heart of the Cards, and you know what you are. You've taken your first steps toward it. Now you have to accept your destiny."

"I don't want to hear this right now," Seto growled.

"There are many things you don't want to hear, Seto Kaiba." Yami's gaze slipped over to Mokuba, and he sighed. "All right, for now. But the time is coming when you will have to hear... and believe."

Fate's sense of humor never failed to surprise him. The Seto Kaiba who had walked through his door and challenged him for his Blue Eyes card was almost unrecognizable in the tattered, limping figure who was trying quite hard NOT to lean on the shoulder Yugi was offering. Solomon Moto shook his head. Kaiba wasn't quite managing, but he supposed it was more a question of preserving dignity than anything else.

"Come and sit down on the couch, Kaiba," the older man said, setting a steaming tea tray down on the coffee table. "Yugi, why don't you take Mokuba up and get the guest room cot set up? I assume you wish to be close to your brother." The last question was directed at Kaiba, who nodded.

"Yes... thank you," the teen replied, carefully making his way around the couch. As Yugi and Mokuba ran up the stairs, Kaiba sank gratefully down onto the soft cushions. Chuckling, Solomon poured two bowls of green tea, placing one bowl in front of Seto, then settling into the armchair.

For a long moment, Kaiba simply regarded the tea, then looked up at the older man. "You got rid of Yugi and Mokuba... I assume you want to talk."

"Mmm." Solomon sipped at his tea. "First, you need to relax. You won't be able to get much done if you're jumping like a scalded cat at every noise. I assure you, this house is quite safe."

"Heh. Why am I not surprised?" But the CEO picked up his bowl and sipped at it gently. For a while silence hung between them, surprisingly comfortable. Finally, it was Kaiba who broke the quiet.

"Why did you offer us a room? I know Mokuba and Yugi are... friends, but... Why me?"

Setting down his tea, Solomon studied the younger man with serious violet eyes. "You really don't understand, do you? I suppose I shouldn't be surprised... You've spent so much of your life just surviving. You haven't had much time for anything else."

A brown eyebrow arched. "You're talking in riddles."

"Sorry... a habit of being a game shop owner, I suppose. Let's try it this way-- why do you think Yugi invited you here? You, specifically, rather than letting you drop Mokuba in our protection and going to face Joey alone?"

Seto suddenly found his throat locking up around the swallow of tea he'd just taken. He knew the answer to that one, but he didn't want to. If he didn't look at what he knew too closely, he didn't have to admit it. Didn't have to deal with it. Setting his tea down, he stood carefully.

"I need to get back to my research. Thank you for the tea."

He didn't even make it two steps to the stairs.

"Seto." The old man's voice was quiet, but stronger than Kaiba had ever heard.

Dragon Master. The "voice" was calm, and warm, and so gentle Kaiba almost wept. It brought back images of a mother he could barely remember, a soft smile and a bright light that had faded far too quickly. But... if he was hearing it in his head...

Slowly, as if expecting to be struck by lightning, Seto turned to look back at Solomon Moto, who smiled at him gently.

"The... the Blue Eyes? But... I..."

"Well... It turns out it was only a card after all," the old man replied, his smile wistful. "Oh, the shock of the link breaking was terrible... but that was all it did. She never really left me... Spending all that time in the card helped me find her again. So you see... what happened that day may have been the best... and perhaps, necessary."

Kaiba just stared. His guilt over what he had done had never been particularly strong, but it had always been there, at the back of his mind. Now it faded away completely in a warm rush of forgiveness.

Release your pain, Dragon Master. You need it no longer. You have better armor now, for mind, and soul, and heart.

:You are not alone, Seto Kaiba. Those who are loved never are.:

/Mokuba has always been with you... as have your parents. As would your friends, if you so choose./

(And besides... you have us now! And we'll ALWAYS be here!)

That did it. Shock, blood loss, stress, and the constant impossibilities finally broke through the block that had spent years forming. It wasn't much, just a slight shifting of ice... but sometimes, that's all it takes... to start an avalanche.

The starch went out of Seto Kaiba's knees and he collapsed, staring at the floor with wide, sightless eyes, shoulders shaking. Instantly, Solomon was by his side, one hand resting gently on the boy's back.

"Seto... when was the last time you had a good night's sleep?" the old man asked, appalled by the dark circles he could see under Kaiba's blue eyes.

A chuckle rolled out, dark and liquid, riding the edge of hysteria. "Without dreams? I... I think I was ten."

Solomon cursed quietly, gently managing to lever Kaiba to his feet. "Come. You're going to bed now-- your research will be there when you get back, and you'll be better able to interpret it with some sleep. Whatever demons stalk you can't find you here... they'll have to wait for another night."

As they started up the stairs, Kaiba managed to fix Solomon with a reasonably fierce blue glare. "Moto... What the HELL was in that tea?"

"I'll tell you in the morning," Solomon laughed, guiding his groggy charge up the stairs.

"Oh MAN! You just HAD to take the red-eye, didn't you?" Tristan Taylor pulled his jacket over his head in an attempt to fend off the pouring rain as they dashed from the bus to the terminal. Beside him, Tea Gardner just glared.

"I didn't hear YOU complaining when we bought the tickets! No, it was 'I wanna sleep in my own bed tonight, Tea!' Never mind that you can sleep standing up if we leave you alone long enough!"

Once in the comparatively dry shelter of the overhang, Tristan removed his jacket, shaking his head to try and fling off some of the water. "Well who knew that Domino City was in the middle of monsoon season?"

Tea nodded, shifting her duffle bag from one sodden shoulder to the other. "Yeah... funny how the rain started immediately at sundown. I mean, it wasn't even cloudy 'til then."

"And this place is usually dry as a bone during summer," Tristan agreed, a serious expression creeping across his face.

The two teens exchanged glances. Something weird was going on. And lately, something weird always seemed to involve them... and the Millennium Items.

"Y'know, after Battle City, I was hoping for a break," Tea grumped, folding her arms over her chest. Tristan's eyes popped, and he quickly averted his eyes from the way her pose accented her figure. Growling, Tea smacked him gently.


"Well, well, well... What did you two do, swim back from Tokyo?"

Both teens looked up, broad smiles crossing their faces as they saw who had spoken.

"Joey!" Tea beamed, throwing her arms around the lanky teen. "And Mai! Hey, you guys! What are you doing here?"

Joey grinned, prying himself out of Tea's grasp. "Eh, a little bird told me you guys were gettin' in tonight. So, we thought we'd come meet ya, since the evenings have been so miserable recently. We woulda brought Yugi, but you know what happens to him in this kinda weather."

"Tell me about it," Tristan rolled his eyes. The smaller boy had the metabolism of a hummingbird, and usually threw off enough heat to melt a glacier. But he didn't have enough mass to retain it-- so a soaked Yugi quickly became a hypothermic, miserable Yugi.

"I ran into Joey on the way here... volunteered to drive him, so you guys wouldn't drown walking home," Mai offered.

Tristan's eyes narrowed. Mai's voice sounded... off, somehow. It wasn't... it wasn't too different from the way Malik's controlled puppets had sounded when they spoke. A little more inflection, maybe... but that same curious flat note, beyond the words. Reaching out, Tristan pulled Tea away from Joey, placing himself between the two as he did so.

Tea blinked. "Tristan, have you lost your mind? What are you doing?"

"Something's wrong here, Tea," he replied, hands clenching into fists. "Joey... you haven't looked at us since we got here, bud. Not directly. Something wrong with your eyes?"

Joey laughed, and the sound chilled Tea even more than her soaking had. "You are smarter than people give you credit for, eh, Tristan? Nothin's WRONG with me... In fact, you could say I've had a change for the better." Joey raised his head, crimson eyes blazing from beneath his bangs. Before Tristan could do more than gasp in shock, Joey's fist lashed out, making contact with his jaw and dropping Tristan in an unconscious heap.

With a scream, Tea tried to bolt, but found her path blocked by Mai, who managed to lock the smaller girl into an impossibly strong grip. Spinning her roughly, Mai forced Tea to face Joey, who took her chin in one hand, tilting her head up to meet his eyes.

"Relax, Tea," Joey soothed, his voice oddly compelling. Despite her fear, Tea felt her muscles loosening, the adrenaline in her veins draining away. "Yeah, that's better. Don't worry, I'm not gonna hurt you... I just need you to come with me. We're preparin' a little surprise party for Yugi... and you're gonna be part of it."

"Y... Yugi? But... Joey, he's your friend," Tea managed, her voice weak even to her own ears.

One corner of Joey's mouth tipped up in a smile that made Tea's heart lurch, both in fear and... something else. "Yeah, Tea, of course he is. That's why I'm doin' this. Aren't you the one always talkin' about how our friendship is so strong? How it's gonna go on... forever?"

Tea sucked in a breath as Joey's meaning hit home, and she redoubled her attempts to break free. However, Mai's grip and Joey's gaze held her firmly in place.

"Go to sleep, Tea... You've had a long trip, and tomorrow's gonna be a very busy day."

Blue eyes rolled back in her head, and Tea collapsed into Joey's arms.

"Forever?" Mai asked, raising one eyebrow, as Joey handed her the unconscious girl.

"Jealous?" Joey laughed. "Don't be. Tea and I are friends, always have been. 'Sides, she's been in love with Yugi since the day they met. Time to see if the feeling's mutual, huh?" Slinging Tristan's body over his shoulder, he headed for Mai's car, grinning broadly in anticipation.

Sunlight was what woke him first. For a second, Seto Kaiba frowned, eyes still closed tightly against the light that tickled his eyelids. Why hadn't his alarm gone off? He never slept past sunrise, not with school, meetings, and a hundred other things to do. Then he opened his eyes to the unfamiliar room, and the memories came flooding back.

Turning over, he squinted at the clock on the nightstand, forcing his gaze to focus on the green glowing numbers. Seven o'clock? He'd slept more than fourteen hours without waking... that HAD to be a record. And while he'd dreamed, it hadn't been of the nightmarish parade that usually visited him in the dark hours. No memories of Pegasus, or the Shadow Realm, or that blasted Mythic Dragon that had been at the heart of his corrupted virtual game. And no memories of Gozaburo, damn his soul, or of the car accident that had ripped his father away so many years ago. Instead, he'd dreamed of flying dragons, sunshine, and Mokuba's carefree laughter.

Speaking of Mokuba... Seto sat up, smiling slightly as he saw the blanket- covered lump on the cot set up at the foot of his bed. Mokuba was still dead to the world, snoring very gently, as he only did when completely relaxed.

Summer meant no school, and Seto idly wondered if anyone in the house was even awake yet at this hour. Then the smell of eggs frying wafted up the stairs, answering that question and evoking a growl from his empty stomach. Oh yeah... he hadn't eaten anything in almost twenty-four hours. Breakfast was definitely sounding like a good idea right now.

After visiting the bathroom, (and checking to see that yes, Yugi was still deeply asleep,) Kaiba made his way down the stairs and into the kitchen. Solomon Moto looked up and smiled as the dark-haired teen slid into a chair at the breakfast bar.

"I had a feeling you'd be up soon," the older man said, turning back to the frying pan. "I doubt you often sleep as late as this, most days."

Kaiba nodded. "Not often the sun precedes me, no." Spotting the coffee carafe sitting nearby, his eyes lit up. "Do you mind if I have a cup of coffee?"

"Heavens no," Solomon replied. "I wouldn't have made so much otherwise. Yugi doesn't need the caffeine, and Yami thinks it's disgusting."

Seto snorted, snagging a mug and beginning to pour. "This from a man whose people invented beer."

That got a chuckle. "Never seen the attraction of that myself. Here you are... one breakfast special, coming right up." Turning, he set a bowl in front of the teen. It was scrambled eggs over rice, Kaiba saw. His gaze fell on the condiments set out on the bar, and his eyebrows raised. He couldn't help it.

"Ketchup?" he blurted, looking at Solomon. The response was a somewhat sheepish grin.

"I lived in New York City for almost a year once," the elder Moto replied, sitting as well. "I learned to like it."

Kaiba shook his head, digging his chopsticks into his bowl. For a while, the two simply ate in silence.

"So," Solomon said finally, "I assume you'll want to start your research after breakfast."

The other nodded. "Please. I've got some online resources that I'm anxious to cross-reference with the print works."

"All right. Once we're done, I'll show you the library. You should be able to set your laptop up in there, as well."

"Thank you. What will you be doing? I notice the Game Shop is closed on Sundays."

Solomon nodded. "Yes. I'm going to make some calls... see if any of my old friends might know anything about this. And Yugi said something last night about taking Mokuba to the Domino Public Library, to see what might be on file there."

"Sounds like a battle plan." There was another silence, then Kaiba looked up.

"You know... you never DID tell me what was in that tea."

The older man smiled. "Well... you must promise to keep it a secret. Most especially, don't tell Yugi, all right?"

"All right," Seto replied, intrigued. "I promise.

The smile widened. "About a quarter of a bottle of brandy."

Seto couldn't help it; he laughed.

The sun was high in the sky, and even the alleys of Domino City's warehouse district looked bright and cheery. Most of the scum that liked to hang out there preferred to wait for nighttime, so there was no one to hassle the slender, white-haired figure that slipped smoothly between the buildings. Even if there had been, it was unlikely any of them would have bothered. There was more than a hint of madness in those large brown eyes, and besides... he was talking to himself. Crazy people were rarely profitable, and often dangerous.

/Explain to me why we're doing this again/ Ryou Bakura's dark side asked him, shifting impatiently in the back of their mind.

"Because Yugi asked us to look into this Black Pharaoh creature, and YOU said that the best place for something like that to set up shop would be the warehouse district," Ryou replied, keeping his voice low.

/That didn't mean I volunteered to go looking for it! Your friend was turned into a blood-sucking night spirit, and promptly put KAIBA in the hospital! Doesn't that ring any self-preservation bells at ALL in that brain of yours/

"If you want the truth, yami, I'm scared out of my mind. But Tea and Tristan should have come home sometime last night. And they're still not back from Tokyo. No calls, nothing."

/They're probably dead. A condition which you can't bring them back from by poking around here, and will probably wind up sharing! And I for one am not suicidal/

"Then why don't you stop complaining and start lending me some of that "expertise" you're always bragging about?"

/Why don't you just give me the body? I can get this done a lot-- wait. Do you smell that/

Ryou frowned. "I don't smell- Oh my God!" It wasn't really a smell, but that was as close as Ryou could come to classifying it. It was more of a SENSE, a miasma of darkness, evil, death, and decay. Pulling his sweater over his nose, Ryou fought not to throw up.

/Set's bones, I've smelled tombs sweeter than that/ The dark spirit sounded appalled, not a tone Ryou often heard from him. /For the love of darkness, you idiot, get upwind before we both pass out./

Never one to pass up good advice, Ryou immediately did as he was told, relaxing as he breathed in the purer air of the east wind. "What... what was that? I've never smelled anything so foul in my life!"

His dark side sounded troubled. /I'm not sure... but it smelled familiar. I think I've only smelled it once before... but once was enough! Give me the body, Ryou. I need to check this out, and you're not experienced enough./

"No. You'll just walk away."

/Hikari, normally I would applaud your intelligent lack of trust, but this is a little different. I need to know what's inside that warehouse, and I think we've found your friends. So it's to both of our advantages to go into the damn place, WITHOUT getting caught. So give me the body/

Ryou sighed. "Fine. But just remember, I've been studying. Have you ever heard of biofeedback, yami? You can lock me away in that ring, but you won't be able to do it fast enough to keep me from stopping OUR heart."

/You'd kill us both./

"I know."

Silence for a moment. Then in a tone of almost admiration, his dark side replied. /You're growing a spine. I think I like it. Fine, I promise, no locking you away, no attempting to off any of your friends, no anything you don't like. Okay/

"Okay." Ryou closed his eyes and his Millennium Ring glowed bright golden for a second. Then it stopped, and brown eyes opened, now filled with a cruel gleam.

"Ah... An infiltration. Good, I was getting out of practice." Looking up the warehouse wall, Bakura spotted an open window. Of course it was on the second floor, but he was a dark spirit with the power of the Shadow Realm behind him. Plus, he had a grappling hook. No problem.

/Where did you get that/ Ryou asked curiously, watching the hook go rattling up to the window.

"Wouldn't you like to know?"

/Since you spent MY money on it, yes, I bloody well would/

"We'll talk about it later, okay? Trust me, I got a good deal. You should see the other stuff I bought."

/When have you had time to go shopping/

"Did you know you sleepwalk?"

/I don't/

"You do now. Now shush. Vampires sleep during the day... usually... but I'd rather not announce to anything else in there that we're coming."

Reaching the open window, Bakura pulled himself into the empty warehouse, his entrance noticed only by a few rats.

/Oh look, yami, relatives of yours./

"Shut up, hikari," he whispered. Slowly, he made his way to the door of the small office, and gently eased open the door to take a look around.

As he'd thought, the rest of the warehouse was simply one large cavernous space, broken up into segments by various stacks of crates and boxes. There, at the foot of the south wall, lay Tristan and Tea, both bound hand and foot, both apparently asleep. Over by the western door, a forklift stood unattended, looking a good deal newer than the rest of the room. Bakura marked its position mentally; it might be useful later. The smell was coming from the north side, where a dark pool of... something bubbled noxiously. Bakura clamped down on his senses, telling himself he did NOT smell anything. At all. And he wasn't getting sick. It wasn't working.

/Yami/ Ryou's voice broke in timidly. /I just remembered... I have a tube of medicated lip balm in my pocket. It smells like camphor. Police use it to cover the smell of bodies./

Bakura didn't need any more urging. Digging the small tube out of his pocket, he quickly smeared some of the balm under his nose. Instantly he could smell nothing except the powerful reek of medicine. He sighed in relief, tucking the tube back into his pocket.

"Thanks," he whispered grudgingly.

/You're welcome. Let's just get Tea and Tristan and go. I'm getting really frightened./

"You don't know the half of it," Bakura replied, one hand gripping the stair rail. "I... almost remember... no wonder the pharaoh and his host were so afraid."

/You know what's going on? What is it/

"I don't KNOW... but something old. And dark. Darker than the Shadow Realm, and so evil that I'd rather claim the Pharaoh as my best friend rather than aid it. Older than anything... chaos." His shoulders were shaking from the half-hidden memory.

A flash of memory from his childhood suddenly caught Ryou's attention. His British mother had taught him to speak and read English as a child, and her lessons had usually come from her prized family Bible. He still read it occasionally, and now he recalled a line from Genesis. /'In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.'/

"And Atum raised a hill from the waters of Nu, and there was the first sunrise," Bakura whispered, calming slightly.

/'And God said, let there be light, and there was light.'/

"But what was in the darkness? What hid in the waters, in the chaos, before the light came? So old, so dark... so beyond our mortal world, and so full of hate."

/It doesn't matter right now, yami. What matters is that we get Tea and Tristan out of here, spike its guns at least that much./

"Right... you're right." With an effort, Bakura pasted his usual cocky smile back on his face and slipped slowly down the stairs. Reaching the sleeping teens, Bakura laid a hand over Tea's mouth, gently shaking her.

Tea's eyes drifted open, then flew wide as she saw who was kneeling beside her. Bakura shook his head roughly, eyes warning. "Don't scream," he hissed, "unless you WANT to wake the undead." He waited a second to make sure she understood, then released her.

"Wh... what's going on?" she whispered.

"Jailbreak," Bakura replied curtly, pulling out a folding knife and cutting at the ropes on her ankles. "Ryou insisted, and since I don't want any two- bit vampire getting his hands on the Millennium Items, I went along. Flip over." Tea did as ordered, and Bakura quickly cut her hands loose as well.

Tea sat up, gingerly rubbing her wrists. "Better let me wake Tristan. He took a knock to the head... he'll wake up ready to fight."

"Fine." Bakura handed her the knife. "Cut him free and bring him out that way. There's a door in the west wall. I'll be standing guard."

Tea nodded, and turned back to Tristan as Bakura edged around the crates. He spent a few jumpy minutes in silence before he finally heard Tea and Tristan behind him. Unfortunately, that wasn't the only thing he heard.

"Didn't ya know it's rude to leave without sayin' goodbye, Bakura?" Joey Wheeler asked, leaning against a nearby crate. Bakura watched the cards shuffling through the vampire's hands, mesmerized, as he heard Tristan growl in frustration.

"I never have been one for the social graces," the tomb robber replied, smiling cruelly. Then, in a lower tone, "When I say, run for the western door. There's a forklift by the controls. It ought to be enough to break through the boxes blocking the way."

"What about you?" Tea asked, her own voice low.

"When have I ever been one for self-sacrifice, woman? I'll be right behind you."

Joey shook his head, tucking his deck back into a pocket. "Y'know, you shoulda stayed outta this, Bakura. My master's got no interest in the Millennium Items. You could have the Puzzle once he's done."

"Forgive me if even I find some prices too high," the white-haired boy snarled, reaching into his pocket once more. Bringing his hand out, he grinned. "Allow me to... enlighten you." With all his strength, he tossed the tube in his hand down at Joey's feet. Brilliant white light filled the warehouse, drawing an anguished cry from Joey.

"GO!" Bakura yelled, but Tristan and Tea were already in motion, dashing across the warehouse floor to the large yellow machine Bakura had pointed out. Spinning on one foot, Bakura launched a beautiful side kick into the blinded vampire's stomach, then he too broke into a run.

/You've been watching Jackie Chan again./

Bakura ignored his hikari, preferring to save his breath for running. As he reached the forklift and the rising door, he saw expressions of panic on both Tea and Tristan's face.

"What's wrong?" Bakura asked, leaping into the seat.

"No KEYS!" Tristan yelled.

/Oh for... Yami, let me AT IT/ Ryou yelled.

With a shrug, Bakura turned over the control of the body to his other. It certainly couldn't make things worse.

Reaching under the dashboard, Ryou jerked a number of wires out. "Knife," he ordered, holding his hand out to Tea. She put the blade into his hand wordlessly, watching as he efficiently stripped the plastic from two of the wires, twisting them together. The forklift came to life with a sudden roar.

"HANG ON!" Ryou yelled, and floored it, just as Joey started to stagger to his feet. Then they were through the cardboard boxes and out onto the street, gaining some rather startled looks from the area's vagrants.

"Whoooohooo!" Tristan yelled, pumping his fist in the air. "Man, where did YOU learn to hotwire?"

Ryou actually blushed. "Well... my father didn't always leave me at HOME when he went on his trips... and my yami's not the only one who spent time on the streets of Cairo."

"So...where now?" Tea asked, brushing a strand of hair out of her eyes.

"Yugi's," Ryou replied, determined. "I think it's time for a council of war."

Tristan nodded. "Good idea, but... first, let's ditch the forklift."

Opening his front door, Yugi's face fell as he took in Tristan's bruised jaw, and the bedraggled state of his and Tea's clothes. "Oh hell," the boy sighed, stepping out of the way. "I see you guys ran into Joey."

"That's one way of putting it," Tristan grumbled, following Tea into the living room. His eyebrows rose as he took in Mokuba sitting in front of a checkerboard across from Solomon Moto, both of them obviously intent on the game.

"Hi, Mokuba," Tea broke in, coming around the couch. "I guess your brother's here too?"

Mokuba nodded. "Yeah... he's in the library, doing research."

"Speaking of whom," Solomon got to his feet, "I should go collect him. We were about ready to break for lunch as it is... a council of war is as good an excuse as any. Hope everyone likes chicken noodle... it's all I've got in this quantity."

Ryou looked over the assembled group and smiled wearily. "I think that "comfort food" is exactly what this group needs right now."

Even as Solomon left the room, Yugi's Millennium Puzzle started to glow, echoed by Ryou's Millennium Ring.

/And just what are you doing here, thief/ Yami asked coldly.

/Oh, sit on it, Pharaoh/ Bakura snapped back. /I'm actually on your side in this one, much as I can't believe it./

Yami's mental voice was quiet. /It's that bad, then/

/Gods, do you remember ANYTHING/ The tomb robber's tone was aggrieved. /Your memory has more holes than a fishing net, and catches less./

/You don't remember either, do you/

/No. Only that whatever it is is so inhuman... Well, even I have limits./

/Very well then. But if you even think about misbehaving, I'll have Solomon and Kaiba seal you in that ring permanently-- and believe me, Kaiba dislikes you enough that he'll ignore the fact he doesn't believe in magic/

Bakura's response was unprintable... and physically improbable. Both the Puzzle and the Ring lost their glow, leaving Yugi and Ryou, who had been privy to the conversation, looking at each other and blushing furiously.

"What was THAT all about?" Tristan asked, looking from one to the other. All the other three had seen was Yugi and Ryou staring at each other as the items shone.

Ryou's blush deepened. "Uh... just a little yami-to-yami conversation. Really, nothing to worry about."

Just then, Solomon Moto poked his head back into the living room, wearing a cheerful smile.

"Lunch is ready!"

With seven people, trying to fit around a table was a dead loss. Instead, the soup was served in mugs, and the council of war met in the living room, making themselves as comfortable as possible. Quickly and concisely, Yugi laid out the story to date, with Ryou and Tristan filling in their parts where appropriate.

"So currently, we know this thing is semi-connected to the Shadow Games, having spent some time in the Shadow Realm, was around in Ancient Egypt, and scares both Yami and Yami Bakura," Yugi finished. "It has the ability to turn people into... well, vampires, but it doesn't seem to like confrontation that much."

"And it knew who we were," Mokuba broke in, drawing everyone's attention. "In the park, it said to me... 'You're a Kaiba... I shouldn't have expected you to be a child.' So... it knew us. And our history."

Yugi's head cocked, but he visibly restrained his curiosity. "It seems pretty obvious that it wasn't prepared for Kaiba's assault that first time, which is why it's attacking us through Joey now."

Kaiba nodded, taking a swallow of soup. "I've spent most of the day researching. Cross-referencing, chasing down sources... Aside from the library here, the only language it's in that I can read is English, which makes for slow going... but I've got a pretty good picture."

The hacker spread a sheaf of printouts out in front of him. "The Black Pharaoh has gone by a lot of names, and it's hard to tell if any of them are more "real" than others, but one pops up a lot- Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos. Sometimes known as the Dark Man, or the Black Man... supposedly taught covens and sorcerers the way of magic... for a price. I'm guessing that its exile to the Shadow Realm was only partial... Maybe summoning could bring it out for a limited time, I don't know.

"It's supposed to be the Herald of beings known as the Great Old Ones... preparing the way for their return. I think that's part of the reason it's here in Domino... start preparing a beachhead. The Light's proven a bit more stubborn than anticipated, it seems.

"Anyway, it's supposed to have control over creatures of chaos, like the walking dead. Like vampires. Since Wheeler was alive before he was converted, it's likely that if we can defeat the Pharaoh, he'll be restored to his normal self... but there aren't any guarantees.

"Previous encounters seem to indicate that the entity is phobophagic-- it feeds on fear," Kaiba clarified, seeing Tristan's glazed look. "It preys on your worst fears, causing hallucinations, or bringing them to life, though that's apparently taxing.

"If the thing's got a weakness, it's gotta be its enormous ego. Apparently it doesn't hold mortals in very high esteem, and that's been its downfall in the past. Humans HAVE defeated it... a King's Musketeer in medieval France, a carnival in America, around 1940.. and apparently very ancient Egypt, though the details are sketchy. Apparently it was defeated by a young prince, though the stories don't mention name or dynasty. Or even how, except that they mention a game." All eyes went to Yugi's Millennium Puzzle, which shimmered in the light.

"Okay," Tristan said, "so... we know it CAN be beaten. Question is, how do we DO it?"

Kaiba sighed. "On that, I'm open to suggestions," he said dryly. "I've got a few more sources to run down, though. One of those might have an idea."

"Very well then," Solomon replied. "I don't think it's a good idea for any of you to go home tonight, after this. I can put Tristan and Ryou in Yugi's room-- there should be a couple sleeping bags in the hall closet you two can use. Tea, it's less than chivalrous, but I can put you up on the couch... it'll at least give you some privacy."

"That's fine, Mr. Moto," the girl replied. "It's not a problem."

"Okay," Yugi said. "Kaiba's going to go back to his research, so Mokuba and I will make the rounds and get some clothes for everybody, not to mention toothbrushes and stuff. Tristan, Ryou, you two should go track down whoever made those flash bombs and get more, as many as you can."

Tea folded her arms across her chest. "And what am I supposed to do?"

"You can help me go grocery shopping," Solomon replied. "With this group, we're going to need a lot more food. And there are a few... side trips we should take while the sun is high... we'll need to be prepared. Everyone be back before sunset, though. I doubt Joey is going to be in a good mood when he wakes up."

The sun was just beginning to dip beneath the horizon when the last of the group returned from their errands. Ryou and Tristan had two large duffle bags between them, something that made Yugi's eyes pop when he saw them.

"How much did that COST?" the spiky-haired boy spluttered.

"Nothing," Tristan replied, setting his duffel down on the couch. "Apparently the guy knows your grandfather, Yugi... says he still owes him for something. These were on the house. Of course, I don't know what most of it IS..."

"I believe that's my cue," Seto Kaiba broke in, coming out of the library, laptop tucked under his arm. The taller boy didn't look nearly as tired as he had recently, but Yugi could see lines of strain beneath his eyes. Whatever Kaiba was looking up in the library didn't seem to agree with him very much.

Unzipping the first duffel, Kaiba began carefully pulling equipment out and examining it. "Mmm. More of those flash bombs Bakura used... phosphorous in a shatter-plastic tube. Electrician's kit, fairly high-end. Soldering gun."

"What's that?" Yugi asked, as Kaiba gently pulled an eight-inch-long metal cylinder from the pack.

"Firestick. Magnesium and white phosphorous in an airtight tube. Pop the cap and the phosphorous ignites, starting the magnesium to burn. The spark flow's about five inches long. Usually used as an emergency light source, but I'd imagine it'd make a pretty good flaming sword against shadow creatures. Burns for about twenty minutes, and it looks like there's at least a good ten of them in here."

Gently unzipping the second duffel, Yugi pulled out what looked rather like an armored glove of some sort. Mounted on the back of the hand was black, square device with a strip of white plastic facing forward over the knuckles. A cord led from the device to a battery pack attached to an armband. Purple eyes blinked.

"Wrist-mounted flashgun?"

"Good call," Kaiba nodded, taking the gun. "Looking at this pack, I'd say we're dealing with some very bright light."

Yugi nodded. "I think there's about five of them in here. Don't think any of them would fit Mokuba, though. Oh, hey!" Reaching into the bag, he pulled out a halogen flashlight. "This could come in handy too."

"Mmm. Where's your grandfather, Yugi? There's something I need to talk to him about."

"I think he's in the kitchen, putting away the food he and Tea got," the smaller boy replied. As Kaiba headed for the kitchen, Yugi scanned the room for the girl he'd just mentioned.

"Hey, Tea!" As she looked up, Yugi tossed her the gauntlet he was holding. "Wrist-mounted flashgun. Try it on, will you?"

Tea did as asked, crossing to Yugi's side as she adjusted the straps. "It's a little loose, but it fits. Trigger in the palm?"

"Looks like it," Yugi agreed. "Just squeeze and it fires a flash." Catching a glint of silver around Tea's neck, he frowned. "I didn't notice you wearing a necklace before."

She flushed. "This? Your grandfather and I went to see some older lady... right after we stocked up on first aid supplies. She gave me this, told me it was very important." She held it up for him to see. "I know it looks like the eye on the Puzzle, and all the other items..."

Yugi shook his head. "No... see how it's got a longer stroke at the corner and more decoration around it? The eye on the pendant is the Horus eye, Yami says, the symbol of the power of the living Pharaoh. What you've got is the eye of Ra, the... Udjat Eye." He stumbled over the unfamiliar word, obviously relaying information from the spirit sharing his body. "It's... a symbol of the light, the sun... and a destroyer of evil. Ra's daughters, Sekhmet and Bast, were the 'Eyes of Ra,' those who took arms against the evil ones, those who didn't keep Ra's law." He frowned once again. "But... it ought to be gold..."

"Well, maybe she just didn't have the money to make a gold one," Tea replied, shrugging.

Yugi didn't reply, still frowning. Half-formed memories were teasing at his and Yami's minds. Silver... silver is for the moon, for Isis, for Hathor, the living queen... As the sun and the pharaoh have gold. But... why Tea, then?

/I think you know the answer to that, aibou/ Yami's voice came back, amused. Yugi shook his head. He didn't have a clue. And apparently the smug spirit wasn't going to say anything else, either.

Before Yugi could try to pry further information out of his dark half, Kaiba came back into the living room, followed by Solomon Moto. Both looked rather grimmer than Yugi really wanted to see right now.

"We're taking a trip," Kaiba announced. "I think I've found out how to take the Pharaoh down... but I need to look at some other sources to get the specifics. Unfortunately, they're in America."

"I've called a friend of mine up at Miskatonic University, in Massachusetts," Solomon continued. "He's agreed to open up the collection for me."

Kaiba continued talking, shrugging into his trench coat as he did so. "The Kaiba Corp. SST is waiting at Domino Airport, but it'll only hold two. It's got a top speed of Mach 3, so it'll make the trip in about 3 hours. Think you guys can hold the fort in the meantime?"

"We got a choice?" Tristan asked, sardonically.

Tea pulled Mokuba a little closer to her. "Go on; we'll be fine. But you'd better hurry; it'll be full dark soon, and I think the storms are going to be even worse tonight."

"Nothing should be able to get in," Solomon told them, as Kaiba headed out the door. "The generator's in the basement, so you should be all right even if the storm causes a power outage."

"Go on, Grandpa," Yugi assured him. "We'll be fine."

With one last look over his shoulder, Solomon followed Kaiba out the door.

Kaiba and Solomon had left the house at a little after seven PM, and the almanac that Yugi had managed to dig up from somewhere informed them that sunrise the next day would occur around 4:30 the next morning. It had been a mutual decision that none of them would sleep that night, at least, not until after the sun came up. Nine and a half hours of darkness lay in front of them, but being teenagers, (and one hyperactive twelve-year-old,) that wasn't the longest they'd been without sleep by a long stretch. Outside, the storm was raging, the wind fiercer than ever, with lightning crackling through the clouds. Inside the house, though, was an oasis of tranquility.

Ryou, Tristan, and Mokuba were sitting on the floor, Mokuba currently skunking both boys at Poker. It was a good thing they were playing for potato chips, otherwise the two teens would have owed Mokuba their college funds by now. Tea was curled up on the couch, trying to get into a fantasy novel, without much success. And Yugi simply stood, staring out the window at the pelting rain. And every so often, someone would look up at the clock.

It was around nine when Tristan finally called a halt to the poker game, now owing Mokuba the annual production of Frito-Lay. Immediately Ryou and Mokuba switched to playing some game Tristan had never heard of, with rules complicated enough to make his head hurt. Leaving the two to their sport, he walked over to Yugi, taking care to make sure his steps were quite audible. Ever since Yami had come into their lives, it had become a hard, fast rule-- you do NOT sneak up on Yugi. Even accidentally. It was hazardous to your health.

"Hey, Yugi... probably not a good idea to stand so close to the windows, y'know?" Tristan commented, standing behind his friend. "I mean, yeah, this place is spelled, but I don't think tree branches notice things like that, and that storm is really getting nasty."

Yugi sighed, turning away from the rain-dark night. "I guess you're right, Tristan, it's just... This doesn't feel right."

"I know, man. We've got a hole in the group. We're GONNA get him back, though. You know Joey; he's too stubborn to let something like this kill him."

"I just... there's something we're still MISSING! Why did he make Joey a vampire? Why did he target Kaiba and Mokuba in the first place? Why does Joey as a vampire hate Yami so much? And why if he does, has he only gone after Kaiba so far? There's something at the center of this we're overlooking, and I can't help but think it's IMPORTANT!"

Reaching out, Tristan took Yugi's shoulders firmly. "Look, Yugi, I know I'm pretty much the muscle for this group, not the brains. But I DO know that the best way to figure it out is to stop picking at it, sit down and RELAX. Otherwise you're gonna get yourself so worked up that you're gonna run right past the answer."

Yugi let out a long, slow breath, relaxing. "You're right, Tristan... thanks."

"No problem. Now, let's get some of that stew your grandpa made up for us, sit down, and think about this. Wanna eat in the kitchen?"

"Mmm. Yeah... don't want to get distracted by the card sharks over there."

His friend snorted. "Yeah. Should have known better than to play cards with anyone named Kaiba."

Once the two were served and seated, Tristan pulled a notepad out of his pocket, setting it on the table. Seeing Yugi's glance, he smiled sheepishly. "Well, it works in detective novels."

"No, I think it's a great idea," Yugi replied. "Okay, so... where do we start?"

"Reasons this thing would go after Kaiba-- leaving his winning personality out of this for the time being."

"Well, there's only two reasons I can think of, really," Yugi mused. "Either they wanted to use him for something, or they thought he was a threat."

Tristan nodded, pen scratching over the pad. "Right. Okay, reason 1. What could somebody want to use Kaiba for? His money's out, at least in this case... don't think ancient Heralds of Chaos are much for fattening their bank accounts."

"That would also disqualify his technical skills. The Black Pharaoh's a creature of Chaos Magic. Computers would be anathema to it."

Tristan cocked an eyebrow at his friend. "'Anathema?' You been spending time reading the dictionary?"

Yugi blushed. "Uh... I think Yami's vocabulary's beginning to leak. Last time I dropped a shipping crate on my foot, I swore for almost two minutes in Ancient Egyptian."

"Man, it's always the quiet ones... Okay, so not Kaiba's money or his tech skills. So what does that leave? He doesn't have a Millennium Item."

"But he DOES have magic. It's wound into his deck; it gives him a connection and control of the cards that no one else has, not even Yami. THAT is something the Black Pharaoh would definitely want. And it would explain why the thing tried to kill Mokuba."

"Makes sense. Take out what a guy loves best; break him and rebuild him to do whatever you want. Sick, but it makes sense."

The smaller boy rubbed his temples. "Then why let Joey almost kill him? I mean, I can understand why Joey as a vampire would WANT to... but why would the Pharaoh let him?"

"I can think of two reasons. One's the old 'If I can't have him, you can't either' thing." Tristan suddenly looked grim. "Two's the one I'm putting money on, though."

"What's that?"

"If Joey had drained Kaiba completely... how much you wanna bet he wouldn't have STAYED dead?"

All the color drained from Yugi's face. "Oh Kami-sama..."

"As for why he hates Yami, well, heck, Yami defeated the thing, when he was just a kid! Admittedly, we don't know how, but that's gotta be a big blow to the ego."

Yugi's eyes lost focus for a second, a flash of ruby there and gone in an instant. "And... Tea said Joey wanted to turn us, all of us... but as long as Yami's inside me, he can't do that. It's... an infection, Shadow Energy living inside you... Yami's filling the place where that energy would go."

The taller boy folded his arms across his chest. "You know, it TOTALLY freaks me out when you do that."

The other laughed.

The hands of the clock crept on past midnight, and the storm outside showed no signs of stopping, or even reducing its fury. Mokuba had long since given up on staying awake, curled up under an afghan in Solomon's easy chair. Nearby, on the floor, Ryou and Tristan were playing a game of Duel Monsters, "keeping in practice," as Tristan said. Shutting her book, Tea noticed that Yugi was back at the window, staring out at the storm. She sighed, setting the book aside as she rose to her feet.

"Didn't Tristan tell you that was a bad idea?" she asked him, coming to stand beside him.

"They're out there," Yugi replied, voice low.

Tea looked out into the darkness, squinting through the driving rain. "They?"

"Joey... and some other things. I couldn't get a good look at them. I think they're just... shadows."

"Should I wake up Mokuba?"

Yugi nodded. "Yeah. Grandpa's precautions might hold against vamps, but I don't know about shadows. Get everybody into a gauntlet, too... and give Mokuba the flashlight."

"You're expecting an attack."

He turned a wry smile on her, and she realized she wasn't just looking at Yugi anymore. Nor was it Yami, completely... it was the odd hybrid of their personalities that she'd seen before only when they dueled. That underscored the seriousness of the situation, and she quickly moved to do as he said.

While Tea woke and armed Mokuba, Tristan and Ryou quickly pulled on their gauntlets and started pulling equipment out of the duffels, setting it in easy reach. Mokuba, to everyone's surprise, claimed the electrician's kit and solder gun, both of which were quickly tucked into his belt.

Tristan raised an eyebrow as he saw Yugi strapping on another of the flash gloves. "You're wearing one too?"

"Shadow magic doesn't do much good against living shadows." His friend's smile was wry.

"Point. So... what now?"

Yugi sighed. "We wait."

Then the lights went out.

"Well... THAT isn't ominous," Tea drawled, shifting so that her back rested against Yugi's.

"Didn't your grandfather mention a generator?" Ryou asked, shifting as well.

"Something must be interfering with it," Yugi replied. "And with the lights out..."

Tristan's yell cut him off. "INCOMING!" Raising one fist, Tristan shot a flash of light at the moving shadow that had suddenly launched itself at him. The rest of the shadows came alive, and the battle was on.

One of the advantages of sharing your body with a dark spirit was enhanced night vision, something Yugi and Ryou were both quite grateful for. Hardly any light filtered in the windows from the outside, but it was still enough for even the non-enhanced members of the group to see the thicker darkness of the shadows attacking them.

A flash bomb detonated in the center of a clump of shadows, and the creatures disintegrated with a shriek. Ducking a clawed swipe at his head, Yugi fired his flashgun into the attacking shadow, groping for a firestick with his free hand. A quick flip of his thumb broke the airtight seal on the tube, and the magnesium flame roared to brilliant white life. Yugi slashed another advancing shadow with the flame, smiling grimly as the creature disintegrated.

Tea ducked a slashing claw and fired back, only to suddenly find herself swallowed up in something black and cold. Dimly, she realized she was INSIDE the shadow, and being dragged slowly to the front door. There was no air, no way to fight, to scream... her gauntleted hand drifted to her pendant and squeezed. The resultant flash was bright enough to obliterate not only the shadow holding her, but three nearby as well.

"Tristan!" Mokuba managed to back up against the larger teen. "We need to get the generator back on!"

"I'm with ya on that one, but it's in the basement! That's a LONG way!"

"You got another option?" the boy replied, wielding his flashlight like a halogen light saber.

Tristan shook his head, tucking a firestick into his belt. "Nope. Load up on flash bombs, we're gonna make a break for it. I'll cover ya."

A huge crack of lightning suddenly split the sky outside, illuminating the room momentarily and causing all the shadows to squeal in pain. Mokuba and Tristan took the opportunity to dash for the basement, but a dark shape outside caught Yugi's attention.

"Joey," he whispered. With a quick look back at Ryou and Tea, who seemed to be holding their own, he turned and dashed for the front door. As he ran, Yugi faded back, letting Yami come to complete ascendance. This was definitely a situation for the King of Games.

Tossing the now quenched firestick aside, Yami scanned the rain-soaked street for his now-vanished adversary.

"JOEY!" the spirit called. "You wanted me to see you! You challenged me, and here I am! Come on out and let's settle this!"

"Well, you certainly have an ego, don't ya?" came the drawled response behind him. Yami whirled to see Joey leaning against a lamp post, heedless of the drenching rain.

"You and your 'master,'" Yami nearly spat the word, "have been focusing almost completely on Kaiba and me. Kaiba's not here, as you must know. So why else would you be here?"

The vampire sneered. "Oh, I dunno. Maybe I wanna talk to Yugi, you know, my friend?"

The two of them began to circle slowly. "Then talk. You know he can hear you as well as I can."

"Sure, assuming you ain't blocking him. I know all about that little trick you can do."

Yami raised an eyebrow. "Where does this hatred of me come from, Joey? When Malik controlled your mind with the Millennium Rod, you fought with all your heart. We've managed to duel and part as friends. Why now do you see me as an enemy?"

"YOU were never my friend!" Joey shot back harshly. "And I ain't gonna let you take the best friend I ever had AWAY!" The punch he threw was so fast, Yami barely had time to see it before it made contact.



"May the fleas of a thousand camels infest your armpits!"

Tristan couldn't help the grin spreading across his face. They'd managed to reach the generator, which luckily for them was tucked in a corner. Flashgun on one hand, firestick in the other, Tristan had set himself up to guard Mokuba's back. He was sore, tired, and covered in slashes, both stinging and coldly numb. But listening to Mokuba's rather creative cursing as he tried to get the generator up and running was more than enough to keep him going.

"How's it coming?" he tossed back, more just to say something than because he needed to know. The demons were holding off for now, watching him warily.

Probably waiting for my firestick to go out, the vultures, he thought wearily. Deprived of the slashing weapon, he could easily be flanked by a concerted assault. Still, if he could buy enough time for Mokuba to fix the generator...

"What isn't slashed is frozen. What isn't frozen might as well be blender parts for all the good it does us. There isn't enough time for me to fix everything, so I'm trying to fix just enough circuits to get the battery starter reengaged. Of course, it'll only hold for about two minutes, but with the lights ON, the shadows will be driven out, and the city power lines should be unblocked. Answer your question?"

"I forgot what I asked. Where did you learn to fix a generator, anyway? Wait-- stupid question. WHY did you learn to fix a generator?"

Mokuba responded almost absently, hands still working at the generator's insides. "Big brother says everyone should know how to repair at least one major household appliance."

"You're kidding."

"Actually, yes. I didn't used to be able to see him that much... but Gozaburo, our adopted father, wasn't actually able to see what was going on in Seto's lab. So, I'd sneak in there while he was doing repairs, or a project or something. He still teaches me to repair things when we're together. It makes it easier for him."

Tristan growled. "I think I'm glad this Gozaburo guy is dead."

"That makes three of us," Mokuba replied tartly. "How's our time?"

"The stick's almost out and the natives are restless. How's it look?"

"You know any good prayers? Here goes nothing." Taking a deep breath, Mokuba made the last connection.

The world burst into brilliant white.

Every light in the Game Shop came on at once, making the house resemble nothing so much as a surrealist Christmas tree. In the living room, Tea flung a hand up to cover her eyes as the shadows around her dissolved like dust.

"Looks like Mokuba and Tristan got the generator back on," Ryou observed, as his pupils slowly constricted back to normal.

Tea nodded. "Yeah, but where's... Yugi!" Spotting the open door, Tea rushed over to look out into the night.

What she saw was almost beautiful, in an awful way. Yami and Joey were fighting, soaked completely to the skin, sodden hair hanging in their eyes. It wasn't the normal "pound 'em till they can't get up" style Joey and Tristan used, either. Their movements were much more graceful, fluid, kicks and punches weaving in and out of the pouring rain. Blood was trickling from Yami's lip, but he hardly seemed to notice it, ruby eyes locked on his opponent.

"You see that, Joey? The lights are on. Your shadow assault has failed, just as every attack sent against us has failed, WILL fail. We're your friends, Joey. Come back to us, let us help you."

The vampire snorted. "Yeah, right. I don't need your kind of help, pharaoh. This isn't over... but it's gonna be. Very soon." With those words, Joey vanished into the shadows.

"Damn," the spirit whispered. "I thought we had him."

/.He's hesitating/ Yugi assured his other half. /We're getting there. Now get inside and get some ice on our bruises before you pass out./

"That... is not a bad idea, aibou." Yami winced. "Joey packs quite a punch."

The sun was just coming up as Seto Kaiba and Solomon Moto made it back to the game shop. To say the scene that greeted them was surprising would be an understatement. Yugi had icepacks decorating several areas of his body, including what was shaping up to be a fairly spectacular bruise on his jaw and an already-puffy lip. Ryou had lost a portion of his hair to a slashing claw, and a white bandage showed through the tears in his left jean leg. Tea was bruised, wrapped in an afghan and shivering, clutching a mug of steaming tea in both hands. And Tristan... Tristan was bandaged pretty much everywhere, with cold packs and hot packs both dotting most of his body. Only Mokuba seemed unhurt, running cold packs to and from the freezer for his injured friends.

"I see you had quite the party while we were out," Seto drawled, hiding his upset reaction.

"You shoulda seen the place before we cleaned," groaned Tristan from where he reclined on the couch.

Solomon looked over the scattered mess. "I'm impressed. I would have expected the place to look worse."

"Oh, Mr. Moto?" Mokuba broke in, as he handed Yugi another cold pack. "I... kinda had to jump-start your generator. The shadows messed with it, and well, now it's kinda fried."

"That's all right, Mokuba," the older man replied. "It was about time for me to get a new one anyway. Now... I would suggest you all get some sleep..." he frowned, "those of you who think you can manage the stairs, anyway.

Tristan looked ill. "Oh hell," he muttered.

"Relax, Taylor, I'll help," Kaiba sighed. "As a matter of fact, why don't you and Ryou take the beds in the guest room tonight... or today, as the case may be. Mokuba and I are uninjured. We'll take the sleeping bags."

For a second, Tristan looked like he was going to make a smart remark, then he deflated. "Yeah... thanks," he replied, levering himself to his feet. Yugi stood as well, slipping under Ryou's arm on his injured side. As the group lurched up the stairs, Solomon turned to Tea.

"Come, I'll show you to the bathroom... I'm sure you could use a hot soak right now. Then I'll get you some fluffy towels and a nice hot mug of some special tea."

"Sounds great," Tea replied, following him. "But what makes it special?"

"Well... you must promise not to tell anyone, especially Yugi..."

It was two PM before everybody finally came back to consciousness. Yugi and Ryou were almost back to normal, thanks to the magic of the spirits inhabiting them. Tristan, however, still looked like a bad patchwork quilt, and spent most of his time glaring at his two friends. Over a large pizza, Kaiba began to outline what he'd discovered in Massachusetts.

"That hole that Ryou and Bakura mentioned in the warehouse is probably a gate, the place the Black Pharaoh came through into our world in the first place. What we need to do is... well, hijack it and seal it up. That, plus defeating the Pharaoh, should remove its influence as well; turning anyone it's changed back to normal. At least, I hope so," the CEO explained, spreading papers with the hand that wasn't holding a slice of extra cheese with the works.

"May I?" Yami asked, gesturing at the diagrams on the table. At Kaiba's nod, he picked up a couple of sheets, frowning as he leafed through them. "This is familiar..."

The taller boy smirked. "It should be. The source it came from attributed it to third Dynasty Egypt, the Lower Kingdom, to be precise."

"Mmm... but, Kaiba... this is priest magic, not sorcerer. You won't be able to make it work."

"He doesn't have to," Bakura's harsh voice broke in, startling them both. The tomb robber was smirking at them both, arms folded across his chest.

Yami's eyebrow went up once again. "Explain," he ordered, his own voice icy.

"Have you forgotten our duel in the Shadow Realm so quickly? How your friends took on the aspects of the cards they most identified with? A dark magician, a pair of warriors... and the Magician of Faith... the priest." All eyes moved to Tea.

Blanching, she shook her head. "Me? You've got to be KIDDING! I'm no priest!"

"But in our time, you would have been," Yami replied, taking her hand. "Or at least, you could have. Your pendant- it marks you as Bast, as Sekhmet, as Hathor, daughter of Ra. Many of the priests of Hathor were women. You're well-read, intelligent, graceful, caring-- all attributes that would have called you to serve the Goddess. And though it may be in friendship rather than gods, your faith is stronger than that of many priests I have known."

"You... you really think I can do it?"

Yami nodded. "I do. And what's more... you're the only one who can. My magic is Shadow- Kaiba's is that of the sorcerer. Bakura's comes from the darkness as well. And as Bakura has said, Tristan is a warrior. You can do this, Tea. Only you."

Taking a deep breath, Tea forced herself to relax. "Okay. So... tell me what I have to do."

"Tell me again why I'm the only one wearing one of these?" Tristan asked, adjusting the light gauntlet on his wrist.

"A Duel Deck is really suited for just that," Yami replied, rearranging cards, "dueling. One-on-one combat. That's what the three of us will be doing, taking on Joey, Mai, and the Black Pharaoh. Tea needs her hands free to cast the gate spell, so you have to watch her back. You'll probably be outnumbered, but not overpowered. Therefore, the flashgun."

The other boy nodded, tucking two of the firesticks into his belt. "You think this is going to work?"

Yami's smile was grim. "It has to. If it doesn't, we won't be the only ones paying the price."

"And Kaiba looks like he's going to a board meeting. How does he DO that?"

The pharaoh's gaze went distant. "Years of practice, I would expect."

Soft footsteps from the kitchen made both boys turn to see Tea approaching. Instead of her normal clothes, the girl was dressed in a pair of black jeans and a black turtleneck, a black baseball cap covering her hair.

"I feel ridiculous."

"You look hard to see," Yami replied, approvingly. "Do you have the materials?"

She nodded. "I've got everything in my pack. I'm just glad that I only have to memorize a couple words in Ancient Egyptian."

"Once you start the spell, that shouldn't be a problem," Yami replied, sliding his deck into his pocket. "Everybody ready?"

"As ready as we're going to get," Ryou replied, fingering his Millennium Ring. A flash of gold, and the expression in his eyes changed.

"Come on. The sun is past its apex, and we'll need all the light we can get," Bakura rasped. Grabbing their materials, the five teens left the house, Mokuba and Solomon watching them go.

"Ugh!" Tea's hand flew to her mouth as the group slipped in through the warehouse's northern door. "God, that IS horrible... worse than Tristan's socks."

"This is why I stocked up on that lip balm of Ryou's," Bakura replied, passing the tubes out. "If you have to vomit, do it behind something, where we won't slip in it."

Kaiba rolled his eyes. "You do have a gift for pleasant imagery, don't you?"

"Quiet." Yami's command silenced them. "Tristan, Tea, the gate. Kaiba, Bakura... let's go get this started."

The three duelists moved to the center of the warehouse, a sort of arena- space where the boxes had been cleared away. Bakura snorted.

"Dueling arena. Classy."

"We don't exactly need a holographic system now," Kaiba shot back, deck sliding into his hand.

Ignoring them both, Yami strode to the center of the arena. "Black Pharaoh! I challenge you! You've hid behind shadows and puppets for too long! Come out and fight me, unless you're afraid!"

"And you're always sayin' MY mouth is gonna get me in trouble?" Joey's voice came from behind and above the trio, causing them to whirl. The vampire was perched on top of a stack of crates, peering down at them with blazing eyes. With motions more pantherlike than human, Joey leaped down to come face to face with Kaiba.

"You must be a glutton for punishment, Kaiba," the blond sneered. "Or did you just get addicted from one bite? It links us, y'know..." Joey's eyes flared, and Kaiba gasped, face contorting in pain. Before Joey could do anything else, however, Bakura chopped a card down between the two, releasing the gasping CEO.

"Enough parlor tricks," the tomb robber drawled, his tone bored. "We didn't come here to spend time with lackeys. Where's your boss?"

A low, cold laugh came from the darkness of the warehouse. "Oh, I'm here. However, I insist you face my duelists first... tournament rules, you know."

Yami's eyes narrowed warily. "Two against three is hardly fair."

"Oh, believe me, boy-king, this will be quite an... equal match up... Joey, show your friend how much you've learned since your last duel."

"With pleasure," the teen replied, fangs bared in an unholy grin. Shadows seemed to reach out and envelop him as he backed into a corridor between the boxes and was gone, Yami following close behind him.

From the shadows near Bakura issued a low, female voice. "You're mine, bleach boy... come and play."

"Bleach! You're one to talk, woman! Your challenge is accepted." With that, Bakura stepped into the shadows between the boxes and was lost from view.

Left alone, Seto Kaiba folded his arms across his chest, looking bored. "And what match do you have for me?" he drawled, turning to the third passageway.

The cold voice chuckled. "Why don't you go and find out, card sorcerer? Your challenge awaits."

Sliding one hand into the pocket that held his Duel Deck, Seto took one deep breath and stepped into the concealing shadow.

For a minute, there was nothing, then the darkness opened up to reveal a grey, featureless expanse of sand that seemed to meld into the grey, cloudy sky. The air was cold and still, only the sound of his footsteps echoing in the dead air.

"Charming d├ęcor." Seto's tone was dry.

"Glad you like it," a wavering voice replied behind him. "Since you made it this way, after all." The voice was familiar-- too familiar, despite the strange harmonics that threaded through it. Slowly, Kaiba turned, already knowing what he would see.

It was himself.

Well... this is certainly interesting.

/Remind me not to let you redecorate our room/ Ryou commented dryly, as the two of them took in the dueling arena that had arisen out of the mists around them. /Ladies and gentlemen, we would like to announce that the laws of physics have been repealed./

Or are at least ON appeal, Bakura agreed, looking upwards. At least, he thought it was upwards. Aside from the glossy black "ground" beneath his feet, there weren't many points of reference. For all he knew, he could be hanging upside down or sideways.

The "sky" was a riot of colors, swirling and chaotic. Several of them were shades that Bakura couldn't put a name to, so he followed convention and lumped them all as "puce."

/Stop looking up at the sky, or I'm going to puce/ Ryou ordered, his mental voice queasy. Apparently being bodiless wasn't keeping the light half from getting vertigo.

Snickering, Bakura returned his attention to the field before him, and the tall blonde standing at the other end. Mai Valentine looked bored, shuffling her deck as she stood, one hip cocked, leg bent. As Bakura approached, she looked up casually.

"Ready to duel?" Her tone was bored, but her violet eyes were empty of emotion, and almost all intelligence. As she moved, Bakura could see the scarred puncture marks on her neck, and despite everything, felt sorry for her.

/You won't hurt her, will you yami/ Ryou asked softly. /It's not her fault./

The dark half sighed. No, I won't hurt her, Ryou. Aside from anything else, it would be counterproductive right now. The Black Pharaoh is drawing from her, and killing her would only strengthen that abomination. Of course, that DOES limit my options somewhat...

With a feral smile, the tomb robber produced his own deck. "I'm quite ready, woman. And it's NOT bleach."

"I stand corrected," Mai laughed. She held up a card. "Harpy Lady! I summon you!" A screech split the air as the monster appeared, talons poised to rend and tear.

Bakura yawned. "Do you not learn from experience? Or do you ENJOY being predictable?" He turned up a card. "Morphing Jar!"

Mai gave a horrified screech, one that was echoed by her favorite monster as the grinning cyclopean mass encircled it, carrying them both to the graveyard, taking the Mirror Wall trap with it.

"You... You..." Mai's jaw firmed. "You'll PAY for that! Dark Witch!"

"Man-eater Bug!"

The following scene would have been censored on any public television station. Suffice to say, Bakura's bug didn't go hungry.

The white-haired boy inspected his nails. "Two for two. You know, this is the problem with the brainwashed... creativity just goes completely to the crocodiles. Do you yield? Or do you want to provide my bug with dessert?"

The pretty blonde actually growled. "Harpy's Pet Dragon, with Elegant Egotist!" All three of the dragons summoned looked quite annoyed.

"Hmm, I wasn't aware Pegasus was in this deck," Bakura snickered. "Chained Lightning, Reaper of Cards. Sic 'em."

Mai was getting really frustrated now, as the bug and the spirit quickly disposed of all her dragons. Before she could play another card, however, the Chained Lightning swooped towards her, wrapping her in electric coils.

"What the... HEY! This is cheating!"

"Yes, I'm good at that," Bakura replied, slinking towards her. "However, since this isn't a formal duel... well, there really ARE no rules, are there? And please don't break out any lectures about dueling with "honor." I don't think either of us could keep a straight face."

Jaw clenched, Mai stared at the smaller boy, face twisted with hate, but eyes still empty. "Go on, then, thief," she spat. "Finish it."

"I intend to." Bakura pulled another card from his deck, and pressed it against her forehead. "Change of Heart! Belong to yourself again!"

Light blossomed in Mai's eyes, and she collapsed as the lightning holding her dissolved. Even as the arena around them vanished, Mai struggled to her hands and knees and began to heave, bringing up an oily black substance that made Bakura wrinkle his nose.

Must be what the vampire gave her to bind her to him, the spirit thought, pulling a flashbomb out of his pocket. With a quick twist, he broke it open, spilling the burning magnesium into the puddle of black. There was a brilliant white flame, then the liquid vanished.

For a second, all was silent. Then Mai began to cry, shoulders shaking as she tried to control her sobs.

I don't deal well with hysterical women, hikari, Bakura informed his other self. Get back to me when there are more things to destroy. And with that, the spirit left his other half in charge of the body.

Ryou knelt beside Mai, taking the crying woman in his arms. "Shh," he soothed. "It's okay, Mai. It's going to be all right."

Seto couldn't honestly say he was that surprised by this turn of events. Ever since the Black Pharaoh's methods had come to light, he'd been half- expecting his "ghost" to make an appearance. The fact of the Shadow Gate had just made it even more likely. Apparently his dark side had the same stubborn refusal to die that the Big 5 had bemoaned in himself.

Folding his arms across his chest, Kaiba fixed his face in what he hoped was a suitably impassive expression. Time in the Shadow Realm had not been kind to his other, he noted. The shadow's face was gaunter, tighter than the one he saw in the mirror. The blue school uniform was dulled by dust and torn in places, and pale skin contrasted with the heavy shadow around the eyes.

Despite himself, the CEO shivered slightly. Those eyes... they were both alien and too familiar. Their deep blue color echoed his own, but the look of hatred and insanity in them was almost tangible. No, his darkness had not fared well since Yami had banished it to the Shadow Realm.

The shadow bowed mockingly, and Kaiba realized that its right hand still wore the red, fingerless dueling glove of the Duelist Kingdom tournament. "Greetings, Seto Kaiba. Welcome to the Wasteland... the emptiness of your own heart."

"Oh please. This cut-rate psychological barrage didn't work on Yugi, and it isn't going to work on me."

"I'm hurt," his double sniffed. "You don't believe me? How can I lie to myself? This place is created from the very depths of your soul. A fitting battleground, wouldn't you say?"

Kaiba chuckled humorlessly, a smirk quirking his lips. "But it's what you DON'T say that makes the lie, isn't it? You say this place is created from my soul... but from what I am? Or what I fear?"

The ghost laughed. "Clever. You're learning... but are you learning fast enough?"

"I'm learning how much I hate the sound of your voice. Did you come here to duel, or to run your mouth?"

"I'm Seto Kaiba, worm. I never back down from a duel." A Duel Monsters deck appeared in the gloved hand.

"What a coincidence." Icy blue eyes flashed. "Neither do I."

"However, the rules of this duel may be a little different than what you're used to... But you've never been one to let that stop you, right? After all, rules are just for people too weak to break them." Shadow Kaiba flipped up a card with characteristic long-fingered grace. "I play the Grey Mare, and strengthen it with the magic card Creeping Fog!"

Mist began to rise from the sand, just as grey and dead as everything else in that place. Faintly, Kaiba could hear a whinny from somewhere in the fog. Then a sudden shape loomed out of the darkness, and he threw himself to one side, barely avoiding being trampled. The creature swung around for another attack, and Kaiba got his first good look at his dark side's monster.

It was a horse-- or more appropriately, the skeleton of one. Even as he scrambled to his feet, Kaiba's encyclopedic memory was digging up the inspiration for this, one long forgotten. "The Mairi Lwdd, the Grey Mare," he whispered. The beast was a demon from Welsh mythology, something read about in a book back during his childhood, and half-remembered ever since. But it was only bones, held together by magical ties. It couldn't be very strong. Even as he thought this, Kaiba felt for his deck.

"Golden Wyvern!" he roared. "Baleful Gust!"

The creature burst from its card with a hideous screech, fanning its great wings at the charging bones. The force of the wind sent the monster flying apart, ribs and femurs and vertebra sailing off into the distance. The skull landed at Kaiba's feet, like a prop from some American Western.

Eyes blazing, the teen shot his opponent a look full of scorn. "Is that all you've got? Childhood terrors and cheap scare tactics? What's next, the monster under my bed?"

"But childhood holds some of our deepest, TRUEST fears, doesn't it? You know the monsters in my deck, don't you? You know them all. They're the dead... the death you bring to everyone and everything you touch."

"You're full of it," Kaiba retorted.

"Am I? I think my friend here would disagree... Wailing Wraith!"

The ball of energy swirled to life on the sand, and Kaiba frowned, watching as it formed. It wasn't very big, but that didn't mean anything. Some of the most deadly monsters were the smallest. This one seemed about the size of... a human... child...

Seto's thoughts trailed off, frozen into horrified stillness as the creature finally took shape. He knew it, yes... although he wanted to run, to scream, to deny that it could ever exist in any sane world. The monster extended skeletal arms to him, pitifully emaciated body barely hidden by ragged jeans and a shirt that was little more than hanging threads. Only a shock of black hair and wide, anguished blue-grey eyes gave a clue to what the thing had been... in life.

"Big brother..." the wight croaked, taking one staggering step towards him, its voice, Mokuba's voice, torn and strained as if by countless screams. "Seto... help me... I'm so cold... please..."

"No." Seto's shoulders began to shake. "No."

:No: Kochi's voice echoed, rumbling deep within his mind. :Your brother remains with Solomon Moto, who would die rather than let him come to harm. And he remains with Her, and She would never let such an abomination be. This is an illusion, Dragon Master, an image born of shadows and fear. It cannot and will never be real:

Lips drew back from white teeth in a draconic snarl, as Seto raised another card. "BLUE EYES WHITE DRAGON- WISDOM!"

White lightning crackled, coalesced into the solid form of the Ancient Dragon. Kochi looked down at the Mokuba-thing with disdain. :A cowardly tactic: the oldest rumbled, tail lashing. :Get thee hence, nightmare, before I scatter your bones to the farthest reaches of time: The wight did as ordered, dissolving in a flash of light. Closing his eyes, Seto leaned against the warm white flank beside him, trying to draw strength from his dragon.

"So he's not dead yet," the shadow shrugged. "It's only a matter of time. Death stalks your footsteps. We both know it. Everyone and everything you love dies. Your mother... your father... even that stupid mutt, who you care about more than you'll admit. He nearly died saving Mokuba... and my master took his life away in the end. Because of you. And as for your beloved dragons... well, you remember this, don't you? Dracolich!"

This time the monster was enormous, but no less familiar than the one before. It was his Blue Eyes Ultimate Dragon, rotting away, just as it had been that fateful day he had faced Yugi... and made his most desperate gamble. But this Blue Eyes was moving, despite its grievous wounds, despite the pale, gleaming bone peeking through its white hide. Its eyes were full of baleful, deathless hate, directed at him, at his arrogance and pride and curse that had brought the proud beast to this pass. Fascinated, Kaiba stared into the actinic light of gathering fire-breath, waiting for the final blow.

(ARE YOU NUTS?) The force of the mental shout almost staggered him, but it DID restore enough presence of mind for him to jump out of the way of the blast.

(What is WRONG with you?) the youngest dragon ranted. (That thing's not us! And why should you feel guilty? We did what we had to do, to save Mokuba! Okay, so it scared the pants off Yugi, but it made him come to terms with Yami, and that's NOT a bad thing, right? And yeah, okay, we did look a little gross... Okay, a lot gross. Like George Romero did our makeup. But that's just the game! They can't REALLY hurt us like that!)

"Blue Eyes White Dragon-- Hope!" Seto called, holding up another card. In a second flash, Shijun appeared beside Kochi, glaring at the Zombie dragon with all its might.

(Try something, I dare ya,) the younger hissed. The older dragon clouted him with a wing.

:Wait your turn, hatchling: Kochi reproved with a rumble. :There'll be enough mayhem for everyone soon.:

Drawing himself up to his full height, Kaiba glared at his doppelganger. "You're wrong. I DON'T bring death with me. My parents died. It's bad, but it happens. As for Joey, he's NOT dead yet, whatever the Black Pharaoh may have done to him. And I'm not giving up on him either, not while I still have a debt to pay. Mokuba is still alive, despite attempts to the contrary. And... and Yugi and Yami are still alive, and they're close. They're closer than I want to admit. But they're not dead, and it's not like they haven't had enough chances. I'm not cursed. I'm not going to let you make me think I am. Now stop the pathetic tricks and duel!"

"One more trick... after all, I'm not the only Shadow who wants to meet you," the other chuckled. "And he's been waiting SO much longer than I have..."

Darkness began to swim in the sand, pushing up, slowly forming into a human shape. The face was familiar, too much so. The eyes, though... they were dark and empty, more soulless than they had ever been in life.

"Gozaburo..." Kaiba whispered.

"Seto... it's been a long time."

This close to the Gate, even the camphor wasn't really keeping the smell down. Tristan pulled a bandanna out of his pocket, tying it across his face. It didn't block everything, but at least he no longer felt like he was going to pass out.

Tea, meanwhile, was just trying to hold her breath as long as possible, moving quickly to set out the ointments, colored string, and other components she needed to work the spell. Yami and Kaiba had drilled her in the ritual repeatedly during preparation and the trip to the warehouse, until she felt that she could almost do it in her sleep. Luckily, the spell wasn't particularly complex-- its chief requirement was strength of faith and will, which Tea would admit she had in spades. One hand touching her new amulet, she took a deep breath, heedless of the stench around her. She was only going to get one shot at this... so she'd better get it right.

"Tristan," she ordered, voice holding a note of command that had never been there before. "Get ready. As soon as I start the spell, there's going to be some very unhappy customers over on the other side of the gate."

Her friend nodded. "Ready, willing and able, Tea. Let's do it."

Raising her arms, Tea began the invocation.

"Ra, father of all, creator of the world, hear my plea. Lady Isis, protector of souls, grant my request, I beg of you. Hathor, daughter of Ra, fill me with your power. I beseech you, reach through me and heal this wound in the world. A gate has been opened to the underworld; help me close it. A sickness has been loosed upon the land; let me heal it. Isis, mother of Horus, grant me the power of his eyes, the moon and sun. Hathor, wife of Horus, grant me the power of his eyes, the moon and sun. Let the light drive back the darkness, let the day return!"

The edges of the Gate began to glow, and Tristan saw with no little awe that they were slowly, ever so slowly, starting to move inward, woven in threads of gold and silver. From the depths of the gate, an unholy screech sounded, but behind him, Tea continued to chant, her voice sounding more and more like the tolling of a bell.

"Father Ra, your barge travels the 12 houses of the underworld to rise again. As you return from darkness, so lend your light to me, that I may keep the night at bay. As Horus vanquished Set, so let me drive evil back to its dwelling that our footsteps may still walk in the light!"

Various shadowy, menacing forms were pulling themselves from the gate now, and Tristan set his feet, a feral smile pulling at his features. With his ungloved hand, he pulled a firestick, flipping the top off as the first of the creatures approached.

"Showtime," he whispered, grin broadening. And the battle was on.

Kaiba was sure his face showed none of the shock he felt as he stared at the shadow in front of him. After all, that was one of the things Gozaburo had considered most important, and Seto had learned his lessons well. Too well, he was beginning to think, these days. The more he was involved in the various adventures involving Yugi and the others, the more he sometimes longed for the freedom to express himself as they did.

Impatiently, he threw that thought off for the time being. He couldn't afford to be distracted now. Putting on his most bored expression, he raised one eyebrow at the creature who wore his face.

"Another shadow drawn from my fears? You're beginning to repeat yourself."

Ghost Kaiba shook its head, maniacal grin never fading. "Oh no... this is the real thing, aibou. Haven't you suspected by now? Haven't you guessed?"

"What are you talking about?"

"My death, Seto," Gozaburo's shade replied, those empty eyes still fixed on the boy he had once taken in. "Surely you remember that day. I remember. I remember very well." The other's tone turned contemplative, almost nostalgic. "You never made a sound, did you? No matter how hard I hit, how much it hurt... You never let out a sound. I knew one day you'd take the company. It was what I made you into, what I'd planned all along."

Seto snorted. "Right. And that's why you had a heart attack from the shock."

The shade responded with the creeping chuckle that had always made Seto's hair stand on end. "You WERE going to throw me out that window, boy. I could see it in your eyes. But you never got the chance. I never had a weak heart, Seto. What do you REALLY think stopped it that day?"

"No." He could remember, far too well, in fact. He didn't want to... but he did. The anger, the fear, the cold certainty that Gozaburo, no longer content with just abusing HIM, would not be swayed from turning his gaze to Mokuba. That burst of flaming, raging hate, stronger than any emotion a fourteen-year-old boy had ever known. Then something in him had PUSHED... and the light in Gozaburo's eyes had gone out. Forever. And in the wash of relief and emptiness that had followed... something dark had entered him. A darkness, a coldness he had embraced. Better to numb his feelings than to risk the hate again. Better to learn Gozaburo's lessons, to be strong, to have power.

Power... Understanding dawning, Seto Kaiba stared across the sands at the darkness Yami had cast out of him that day. "You," he whispered. "You came in. You aren't me, were never me... not really."

"Not entirely true," came the smirking reply. "I was darkness. Nothing much, really, just a collection of a lot of emotions and a little evil magic. You're right, you never would have BEEN who we became together without me... but you built me, Seto Kaiba. Your pain and anger and hate were your own, and they were what shaped me, fed me. And if it hadn't been for that Pharaoh, and your annoying little brat of a brother, there wouldn't have been any of YOU left by now."

"Your power tore my soul from my body," Gozaburo continued. "I was flung into the Shadow Realm. They made me quite... comfortable there. And I've been waiting and dreaming of this day, Seto... For a very, very long time."

The boy spat on the sand at his feet. "You two deserve each other," he replied cuttingly. "Look there, Gozaburo, you have the 'son' you always wanted to make me... for all the good he'll do you. You're both nothing but bad dreams now, good only for the fear and memories you invoke. And I... I have grown beyond both of you." Blue eyes regarded the shade of his former tormentor with nothing but frozen disgust.

"I'm not afraid of you, Gozaburo. You're nothing but a bully and a petty tyrant. I don't hate you anymore-- you're not worth that much of my time. I don't even pity you, the way I did Pegasus. You are nothing but a broken old dead man, and I won't waste any more energy or thought on you." He raised a hand. "Go back to your Hell, old man... After all, you made it for yourself."

Shadows swept out from Seto's palm, the exaltation of the power rushing through him once again, just as it had three years ago. This time, though, the shadows felt clean, pure, the companion to the light, rather than its enemy. No taint of hatred, only grim determination and necessity. The darkness swept over the shade, which didn't even have time to cry out. Black energy sank into the sand, and Gozaburo Kaiba was once again condemned to dark eternity.

"I'm not fourteen anymore," Seto informed his double. "I know what I'm capable of, and I can accept it. I know what I AM, now, and I'm not afraid of it. And thanks to YOU, I can never hate anyone that deeply again. You're nothing but a walking nightmare... and I'm ready to wake up." The CEO held up one final card.

"Blue Eyes White Dragon- Courage!"

With a sky-splitting roar, the final of the dragon trio appeared, standing on the sand beside its companions.

/To hide behind fear and nightmares is a coward's weapon/ Taiyuu's strong voice declared. /And bad dreams disappear when the morning comes. Ready/



Once again, three blasts of White Lightning lit the world. When they cleared, nothing was left, but the patch of ground where the undead dragon had stood had fused into cooling grey glass.

Shadow Kaiba fell to its knees, blue eyes wide and staring. "NO! Not again!" it wailed. "How! How can I have failed again?"

"Because you're nothing but darkness," the original replied, padding across the sand. "The absence of light. You're a hole, nothing more. And as soon as something fills you... you cease to exist." Kaiba crouched to look into his other's eyes. "Yami didn't just show me the cards' heart... he showed me my own. And when I had that... I wasn't empty anymore." Standing, he watched impassively as the shadow melted away.

"Game over."

"Okay, this is getting to be a BIT more than I can handle here!" Tristan puffed, ducking a slash. Behind him, Tea was still chanting, protected from the advancing shadows by the crates that surrounded her. So far, he was blocking the only entrance to her, but if the shadows got much thicker, they might just swarm over the wood without bothering with him. Of course, if they got much thicker, they'd be chowing down on him anyway. Being a lone hero always looked so much EASIER in the movies...

"Harpy Lady, use Rose Whip!"

"Raging Demon!"

The press of shadows around him thinned somewhat, and Tristan looked up with a wide grin. "All RIGHT! About time you guys got here!"

Bakura leaped blithely into the fray, knife flashing too fast for the eye to see. Tristan didn't know what the blade was made of, and probably didn't want to. But whatever it was, the shadows were dissolving as soon as they were touched.

"Sorry, our party invitations must have been lost in the mail," the tomb robber replied, grinning. From where she perched atop a crate, throwing the flash bombs Bakura had given her, Mai thought their smiles looked disturbingly similar.

Men, she thought wryly. Let 'em destroy something together, and they're best friends. Must be the testosterone.

Oblivious to all that was going on around her, Tea continued her chant, by now lost in the ecstasy of the casting. "I am the weaver, let me make whole the cloth of the world! Let the sun and moon spin my thread, my garment shall be whole, and I shall walk clothed into the day."

Risking a quick look over his shoulder, Tristan frowned. There seemed to be a silver radiance about Tea, and her hair was moving slightly, although there was no wind. He shot a worried glance towards Bakura. "Does... she look different to you?"

"She's casting a spell, you moron! You thought there'd be no side effects?"

"SIDE EFFECTS?" Tristan yelped, before ducking a claw swipe at his head.

The white-haired boy rolled his eyes. "She's the Priestess! It won't be PERMANENT! Although..." and now he too frowned as he looked back at Tea, "the outfit doesn't look quite right."

Tristan blinked. "Outfit?" Before he could turn, though, a pulse of silver energy swept screaming through the warehouse, knocking all of the combatants to the ground.

The arena the shadows revealed was familiar to Yami, though he couldn't exactly say why. The walls were sandstone, carved in figures that were only half-visible in the flickering torchlight. The floor was wide and flat, the squares of the dueling fields carved into the center of its expanse. The edges of the room faded into shadow, but Yami had the feeling that the tunnels and corridors extended for miles around them. Perhaps even into eternity.

At the other end of the room, Joey stood, shuffling his deck idly. His eyes blazed crimson in the darkness, making Yami wish that Yugi hadn't insisted on returning Joey's Red Eyes after the end of the Battle City tournament.

/Oh crap/ his hikari broke in. /I'd almost forgotten about that./

It was the right thing, aibou, the spirit replied with grim amusement. Just somewhat... inconvenient in this case.

Reaching the center of the room, Yami stopped just out of Joey's arm's reach. "Here I am, Joey... as you wanted."

The vampire gave him a fanged smile. "Yeah, an' believe me, I've been WAITIN' for this."

"Really?" The eyebrow cocked again. "Usually when you-- what's the term?-- "run your mouth" this much, you're desperately trying to avoid something. Can it be that you don't really WANT to duel?"

Joey snarled. "I'm not afraid of you!"

"I never said you were. There is no shame in not wishing to duel a friend, Joey. And though in your current state you may not believe it... I consider you a friend. You are an accomplished duelist, Joey, one with skill and power. But this duel serves no purpose, and I think we both know that. It's merely an outside force pitting us against each other, one with considerably less style or reason than Maximillian Pegasus. We're only serving his whims this way."

"God, do you EVER get tired of hearin' yourself talk? I'd wanna shut you up just to stop all those damn SPEECHES! Honor this, and the Heart of the Cards that... For once, can you just shut up and duel?"

/This isn't getting us anywhere, Yami. Let me talk to him./

No. You're his target, Yugi. Don't forget that.

/He can't turn me while you're here, Yami. But the Shadow Energy's warped his mind. He won't believe anything you say... but he might listen to me./

Yami sighed. You are braver than a lion, my brother. Just prove to me that you're smarter than one, too. With that, he relinquished the body to his other self.

Violet eyes grew larger, softer, but there was no less steel in them for all of that. Seeing the change in his opponent, Joey's expression softened.

"Yugi. What are you doin' out?"

"Can you duel me, Joey? To the death, the way your master will insist? Because I'm not going to let you destroy yourself like this. I won't let you throw away your humanity."

Joey's laugh was horrible. "Humanity? Why would I want it? To get old and die? Or maybe not get old, just bleed to death in some stinkin' alley someday because I wasn't fast enough? Or hey, maybe I'll just wither away inside, like your great Seto Kaiba, 'til I might as well be dead, because I don't give a DAMN about anyone anyway! Or crawl into a bottle to make the pain stop, like my old man-- no way. Not a chance. I'm gonna live forever, Yug... and I want you to come with me."

"Joey..." One of Yugi's hands fell on the pyramid, and Joey snarled.

"No! You and I promised we'd be friends forever-- HE wasn't part of that deal!"

"But you can't exactly watch a sunset with me anymore, can you, Joey?" Yugi's voice was sad, but held no uncertainty. "Yami IS part of the deal, Joey. He's part of me. Part I lost a long time ago-- or maybe it's the other way around, I'm the lost part of him. And when you're you, you understand that."

The vampire's face turned to stone. "Fine, then. Either take off that Puzzle and come to me... or let him out, and let's get on with this duel. One or the other, Yugi... no more stalling."

"I have a better idea," a cool voice drawled. "How about... you duel ME?"

Sitting up, Bakura rubbed his head, noticing that the shadows had all disintegrated. "Somebody get the number of that ox-cart?" he grumbled, looking around. Then his eyes widened in shock.

"Oh, ISIS..."

Tristan shook his head, trying to clear it. "What, huh?" Then he looked up as well.

"Oh my... TEA?"

Familiar blue eyes looked down at him with an amusement that was much older than the face they were set in. "Yes... and no," Tea replied, a hint of chiming bells in her voice. Her clothing had changed-- now she wore a simple strapless linen dress dyed the blue of the morning sky. Her eyes were rimmed with kohl in ancient style, and perched upon her brown hair was a silver head-dress, a lunar disk cradled between the horns of a cow. The amulet still rested upon her chest, now shining with a brilliant light.

"You guys are just gonna have to go with me on this," Tea replied, gaze focusing on the gate, which was closing slowly-- still too slowly to stem the tide of shadow creatures. "Let me share your power!"

Tristan didn't even think about it, simply closed his eyes. "You've got it, Tea!" He began to glow, and a beam of white energy shot from him to envelop her. Atop her crate, Mai followed suit, a rose-pink beam connecting her to Tea.

Bakura scowled. "You must be joking! I'm not going..." He caught Tea's gaze; warm, accepting, not judging. A gaze that wasn't just from the girl before him, but from someone greater, stronger.

"Oh, very well." This beam was blue, the color of evening clouds. Tri- colored glow around her, Tea raised a hand, directed it at the gate... and a beam far more brilliant than before shot forth. Slowly, slowly, the edges of the gate began to move together, fighting every inch. Sweat ran down Tea's face as she poured everything she had into the beam. Finally, with a sound like a thunderclap, the gate closed... and all but Tea collapsed.


Yugi and Joey both stared in shock at the trench-coated figure that had entered their arena. Seto Kaiba favored them both with his trademark smirk as he walked down the stone steps towards them.

"Well, mutt? You've been aching for a rematch, a chance to get back at me for every time I've stomped you down... now's your chance."

"Kaiba," Yugi began, eyes troubled, but the taller boy stopped him with the shake of a head.

"The Black Pharaoh is waiting for you. Go on, end this. After all..." Kaiba's smirk widened. "If he can't beat me, then he shouldn't even imagine he can beat YOU."

Joey's snarl was feral, more wolf than dog. "You'll get your chance, Kaiba. Believe me, I'm not about to forget about you. You just gotta wait your turn."

"I'm not good at waiting," came the cool reply. "You'll face me now. And to make it a little more interesting... we'll make a wager on it. If I win, you relinquish your claim to duel Yami or Yugi."

"And if I win?" Red eyes watched him with calculating hunger.

Removing his trench coat, Kaiba carefully folded the white garment and set it aside, then calmly opened the collar of his shirt. "If you win, mutt, you get my throat. Bared to you without resistance."

"Kaiba, NO!" Yugi cried, eyes wide.

"This is my duel, Yugi Moto. I'll risk what I choose. You have other business to attend to, remember?"

/He's right, aibou. Much as I hate it, we must leave him here. Kaiba is a more experienced duelist than Joey, remember, and in his current state, Joey is not able to access the Heart of the Cards. And if we can stop the Pharaoh, then the winner of this duel won't matter anyway./

It matters, Yami, came the almost bitter reply. But I guess I know why you and Kaiba can't understand. Drawing himself up to what height he could, Yugi fixed his longtime rival with an intense purple glare.

"You WIN this duel, Seto Kaiba. Because if you don't, I'm coming into Hell itself after you!" Then he turned and strode out, leaving vampire and CEO both speechless in his wake.

"Now THERE'S something you don't see every day," Joey remarked, playing with his deck as he watched the shadows swallow the departing Yugi.

Kaiba chuckled. "I don't believe I've ever seen him lose his temper before... not even with Pegasus."

"That's 'cause you missed him tearin' through that game o' yours," the vampire replied absently, sounding more like his normal self than usual. "'Course, I think it was more the Big 5's modifications that finally got to him."

"Hn." Kaiba shuffled his own cards. "You forget, I saw his reaction when you 'died' before his eyes, fighting the Mythic Dragon... but he wasn't exactly himself then. I'm not sure who was angrier, Yugi or Yami." He shrugged. "I'm not sure the difference mattered."

Joey turned his attention back to his opponent, smirk almost matching Kaiba's own. "You wouldn't be tryin' to TELL me something, would you, Kaiba?"

"I don't need to speak in riddles, mutt. If you're reading between the lines, perhaps there's something you need to tell yourself."

"Yeah? And what do you even care, anyway? Why do you even give a damn about this 'loser dog?'"

Oh hell. Should he tell the truth? Wheeler wouldn't believe it, especially not in his current state, but he wouldn't be likely to believe any lie Kaiba told him either. And after everything the last few days had held, he was quite simply too damn tired to make up a lie.

"Because you have almost everything I ever wanted, Wheeler, and I'm not going to see you throw it away."

Red eyes blinked. "YOU? You want what I have? Like what, the apartment in the middle of the slums? The drunk I call my dad? You live in a mansion, you son of a bitch! You got everything you ever want!"

"And you have Yugi." Kaiba's voice was calm, emotionless. Inside, he couldn't believe he was doing this... but he was starting to realize why he and Wheeler fought so often. It was like looking into a mirror; one that showed you what you wanted most and could never have.

I must be out of my mind... Surprisingly steady, as if with a mind of their own, Kaiba's hands rose to unbutton his shirt. Pulling the sides apart, he bared his chest, revealing scars, even paler than the skin they marked. Some were thick and ropy, others thin as hairs. Some old, some fresher, though none truly recent.

"There're more on the back," Kaiba replied, still no emotion in his voice. "I paid for that mansion, Wheeler. And I'd do it again if I had to, for Mokuba. No, I don't ration my food, and nobody lays a hand on me anymore... but I paid for it. These aren't my only scars."

For just a second, a flash of brown was visible through the red. "Kaiba..." Joey whispered, extending a hand.

"I don't want pity, mutt," the older teen replied savagely, buttoning his shirt once more. "I just... I don't want to see you throw away what I'm never going to have." The brunet forced himself to smirk. "One of me in the world is more than enough."

For a second, Joey only stared, then he shook his head roughly, as if trying to shake off sleep. "Well, I'm really sorry 'bout your sob story, Kaiba... but if you think that's gonna stop me from kicking your ass at this game, you're WAY off."

Really? Kaiba's smirk became a little more real. That's what you think. You're as stubborn as an ox, Joey Wheeler-- something else we have in common. You fought Malik to a standstill rather than let Yugi be hurt. My 'sob story' should have raised enough of you to have that little conscience of yours digging in your heels. And then I just let that stubborn streak do its work. I'm not the only opponent you're dueling here; you also have to face yourself.

Just then a quiet, child-like voice began to chant, sing-song tone rebounding from wall to wall in eerie counterpoint to itself. It came from everywhere and nowhere, and the song chilled Kaiba's blood.

/Red-eyes Black and Blue-Eyes White/Fang and claw the dragons fight./Blue-Eyes White and Red-Eyes Black/Lost the way and can't come back/Blue-Eyes Black and Red-Eyes White/One is dark and one is light./Red-Eyes White and Blue-Eyes Black/One defend and one attack/White-Eyes Black and Red-Eyes Blue/Which is which and who is who/Black-Eyes White and Blue-Eyes Red/Win the duel and both are dead/

"What the HELL?" Joey exclaimed, eyes scanning the shadows.

"I think your master's getting impatient," drawled Seto. "Shall we begin?"

"You got it! Red-Eyes Black Dragon, destroy him!"

"Blue-Eyes White Dragons, bind and hold!"

Joey's puzzled expression didn't last long. No sooner had his Red-eyes appeared on the dueling field than it was actually POUNCED on by all three of Kaiba's Blue-Eyes. When the cloud of dust cleared, the Red Eyes was pinned flat to the floor, the three white dragons actually SITTING on it, looking rather smug. Perched atop the black's shoulders, Shijun was actually twitching his tail in delight. Taiyuu looked quite comfortable draped over the dark dragon's midsection, and in fact seemed ready to take a nap. Kochi had the powerful barbed tail and clawed hind feet trapped securely beneath two large front legs. Had this been a cartoon, both Kaiba and Joey would have produced gargantuan drops of sweat.

(Well, you DID tell us not to hurt him,) Shijun explained, seeing his master's expression.

"You three have been hanging around Mokuba too long," Kaiba replied.

I should have brought a magazine... a new voice grumbled. The Red Eyes looked more exasperated than anything, head propped in one clawed hand.

"Uh... " Joey stared. "How do we score this?"

Kaiba shook his head. "I have no idea," he replied honestly. "Shall we continue?"

"Oh yeah. Flame Swordsman!"

"Predictable. You're better than this, mutt. Saggi the Dark Clown destroys your swordsman, and you activate my trap card."

Joey blinked. Kaiba was rarely one for trap cards, preferring to obliterate his opponent by force. "What the--"

"Spellbinding Circle!" Yugi's second-favorite trap card came to sparkling life. With no monster cards currently in play, the glimmering sigil flew directly to the closest active enemy it could detect- Joey himself. Before he could react, the vampire found his arms bound to his sides.

Smirking, the CEO watched as his opponent struggled in vain. "I believe I win. Again."

Having left Kaiba and Joey's duel behind, Yami once again took control of the body as they moved through the mists. Yugi relinquished the driver's seat willingly, but he still sounded troubled.

/He thinks he doesn't matter, Yami/ the younger personality explained, mental voice soft and sad. /He's not just willing to risk his life... he doesn't think there's any reason NOT to./

Then we must show him otherwise, Yami replied firmly. Though I doubt he will be very cooperative; he is deeply afraid of something.

/You picked that up, too? He's not just frightened, he's TERRIFIED of letting down his guard. And Seto Kaiba doesn't scare easily./

He's like a wounded panther, afraid and all the more dangerous for it, Yami agreed. And should I ever encounter the reason why, there will be at least one new mind inhabiting the Shadow Realm.

Yugi chuckled. /And people think you two don't like each other./

Few things in life are so priceless as an honorable enemy, aibou, the spirit replied. Then his eyes narrowed. The mists around them were fading away, and Yami braced himself to see what new terrors were in store for him.

The cement floor and wooden crates of the warehouse were a bit of an anticlimax, but Yami also knew it meant that he'd reached his objective. No more illusions or pocket realms-- the Black Pharaoh existed in reality, and it was in this reality that they would face him.

"So... You've come to me at last, have you, boy-king? Good... I grew weary of waiting for my duelists to dispose of you. That pleasure, apparently, will now be mine."

Yami turned unhurriedly towards the source of the sound, folding his arms across his chest as he did so. For a long moment, there was silence, as the two spirits sized each other up.

"Nephren-Ka," Yami declared, a piece of scattered memory locking into place. "I know you."

"And that's all you know, isn't it? The Nameless Pharaoh... even the memories in your tomb are scattered to the winds. You know nothing, not even your own name."

The teen laughed. "And that drives you insane, doesn't it? You never knew my name, not even in Egypt. I was six years old, and challenged you to a game of sennet! You lost then, and I sealed you away, and the same will occur here today! Nephren-Ka, Nyarlathotep, Crawling Chaos, I name you and I know you. Can you say the same for me?"

"I know enough-- Yami. Darkness, they name you now. An appropriate name for someone who's only half a soul, and the darker half at that. Apparently there's something you haven't taken into account, Nameless One. When you defeated me the first time, you were a child- innocent, unspoiled. Not only are you an adult now, but you've tasted death. You're a shadow, a shade, the walking dead. And as such," yellow eyes flared with sulfurous light, "you are MINE!"

A cry was ripped from the spiky-haired teen's throat as something began to PULL at him, yanking at the bonds that held him to Yugi's flesh.

/Oh, I- don't- THINK- so/ Light wrapped itself around the shadows that were Yami, encircling, anchoring, striking at the pull of the Black Pharaoh's power. With a snap, Yami felt his spirit snap back into the body where it belonged, surrounded by the warm glow of Yugi's presence. The Black Pharaoh stared in disbelief.

"How... How could you break my power? You're MINE, you can't defy me!"

/And I thought Pegasus was dense/ Yugi commented, unusually caustic. /You okay, Yami/

I've been better, hikari, his other admitted. Straightening, he fixed the Black Pharaoh with a burning ruby gaze. "Perhaps I can't defeat you, Nephren-Ka... but I'm not ONLY a shadow. And my light and I TOGETHER are more than you have ever faced!" His eyes closed, and the Eye of Horus appeared on his forehead. A golden glow built up around him, starting at the Puzzle and spreading to cover him entirely. Then a beam shot out from the Puzzle's Eye, directly at the Black Pharaoh.

It met a wall of darkness, and for long moments, the two forces struggled against each other, neither gaining the upper hand. Slowly, however, the darkness began to advance, pushing Yami's golden beam further and further back.

I can't-- he's too strong--

/It's slipping-- We're not enough--/

/We're going to lose it./

Just as the golden energy faltered, though, Yami felt an arm slip around his waist and a fresh surge of power go through him. Opening his eyes, he turned... and saw Tea beside him, her silver radiance joining his own. As he took in her appearance, his eyes widened.

"Lady Isis..."

"Come on, Yami," Tea replied, her voice still holding the chiming of bells. "Let's send this monster back where he belongs."

"You can't!" the creature nearly screamed. "My gate is shut, the Shadow Realm is closed!"

"You're not going to the Shadow Realm," Yami replied, as Tea and Yugi's powers mingled with his own. "A far darker place is waiting for you, Herald. Go back to your masters and tell them you've failed! This world is not for you! GO!"

Silver-Gold radiance swept crashing over the Black Pharaoh, swallowing it in a flare of light. When the illumination died, the creature was gone.

"Oh God," Tea breathed, fading back to her normal state. "We did it!"

"Almost," Yami replied, grimly. "We have one more loose end to tie up."

Yugi's mental voice was almost inaudible. /Joey./

With the warehouse back fully in its original dimension, it was easy enough for the scattered duelists to pull themselves together. Tristan and Bakura were leaning on each other heavily, exhaustion written plainly on their faces. Behind them, Mai was managing to walk on her own, although she wobbled a bit. Yami and Tea came from another direction, the entire group converging on where Seto Kaiba stood, a bound and snarling Joey Wheeler at his feet.

"It looks like I was wrong," Kaiba admitted, sounding almost as tired as everyone else. "I'm... sorry."

"No. It's not over yet," Yugi replied, as his dark side relinquished control of the body to him. The smaller teen took a deep breath-- then lifted the Puzzle from around his neck. "Hold this for me, would you, Kaiba?"

The CEO stared. "What are you-- Yugi, don't!" One hand shot out, grabbing the younger boy by the arm. Yugi looked down at Seto's hand, then up, smiling.

"Don't worry, Kaiba, I know what I'm doing. You have to trust me on this one. I promise, I'll be back."

"You'd better be." Kaiba released his rival with a growl. "We still have a rematch."

Yugi took a deep breath, then crossed to where Joey still sat on the concrete. "Dispel the circle," he ordered, pleased to hear that his voice didn't waver.

The response from the sorcerer made Yugi blush, but the circle wavered and faded out. With a fanged grin, Joey rose to his feet.

"Ey, Yugi. Finally decide to take me up on my offer?" the vampire drawled, ignoring their spectators. Yugi shook his head.

"No, Joey. Yami is my darkness. I'm not going to give him up. I don't want immortality; I don't want your offer. I won't accept your darkness. But... you're my friend. So if this is what you really want, what you want to be and what you want to do... then I won't stop you." Pulling open his collar, Yugi tilted his head to one side, offering his throat.

"YUGI!" Tristan yelled, echoed immediately by Mai, Tea, and, oddly enough, Bakura. Kaiba didn't yell, but it was obvious from his growl what he thought of this turn of events. The Millennium Puzzle, chain still clutched in Kaiba's fist, was beginning to pulse like a strobe light. Obviously, Yami was none too pleased either. Yugi ignored all of them.

Red eyes wide with shock, Joey just stared at his smaller friend. "Yug... I... What are you doin'?"

"No Puzzle to keep you at bay this time, Joey. No excuses, no Chaos Monster driving you on. Just a simple decision. Are you a vampire? Or are you human? If you want my life, you can take it, Joey. Just sink your fangs in and drink, I won't stop you. But you have to WANT it. You have to choose. I know you're scared, and hurt, and this seems like a way out, an escape from everything. But I also know that's the darkness talking, the poison the Black Pharaoh put into you. You're stronger than that, Joey. You're braver than that. And if you want your humanity back, then it's time for you to reach out and TAKE it."

Wheeler looks like a deer in the headlights, Kaiba mused, barely noticing as the Puzzle's chain bit into the hand that was squeezing it. He could almost sympathize with the vampire; even from here, the intensity of Yugi's gaze was stunning-- and frightening. It was like being the focus of a searchlight. Those huge violet eyes looked into you, seeing everything, even the things you tried to hide from yourself. Yugi saw you for everything you were, and accepted you anyway. No judgment, no fear or loathing, simply pure compassion.

Oh for God's sake, Seto, say what you mean. Okay, fine... it was love. Pure, unconditional, and completely unromantic. It was the love of a parent, a friend, a brother. It was the type of emotion that poets immortalized and songs were written about. And to find yourself the focus of it, after believing that you were destined never to be so much as accepted, was scary as hell.

Wheeler obviously thought so too. The blond teen simply stared at his smaller friend, speechless. His tongue ran over his fangs, more in a nervous motion than any preparation to bite. The red in his eyes flickered, then with a cry, Joey doubled over and fell to his knees.

Yugi didn't even blink, simply held his friend's hair back as Joey retched, bringing up a black, oily substance that seemed to move on its own. Even as Joey's heaving stopped, Bakura was sprinkling the contents of another flash bomb over the puddle, muttering something unpleasant and uncomplimentary about the Black Pharaoh's parentage and mating habits. For a long moment, the American didn't move, simply stared at the cement floor. Then he looked up with eyes that were once again mellow brown, and smiled weakly.

"Hey, guys... did ya miss me?"

Then he passed out on the floor.

I need to have my head examined, Seto Kaiba thought, for what had to be the tenth time in two hours. Okay, so calling his car and driver to pick the group up from the warehouse was simply logical. Joey had been out cold, and Tristan and Ryou had been only inches away from joining him. Mai was dividing her time between sticking close to Tristan and hovering over the unconscious Joey. Tea still looked shaken, though she'd yet to say anything about her experience. And Yugi had fallen silent after putting the Millennium Puzzle back around his neck, occasionally blushing or shaking his head. You didn't need to have a Millennium Eye to tell that Yami was thoroughly chewing his hikari out.

And he could be forgiven for not wanting to be alone right now, given everything. Mokuba would kill him for hovering, however, so the solution seemed obvious. Invite everyone back to the mansion, since none of them wanted to split up yet, and the Game Shop was nowhere near big enough for them all.

But calling the dragons out of their cards in the backyard? Well, it was fenced... and Mokuba HAD asked... and he had to admit, there was something very relaxing about leaning against a warm wall of scales, watching as the rest of the group worked off their energy with quite probably the first real party the Kaiba estate had ever seen.

:You made a wise decision: Kochi rumbled, shifting idly on the grass. The eldest of the dragons was stretched out in the sunshine, soaking up the heat. So far, the most he'd moved was to glare at Shijun when the younger dragon came a little too close with a bucket of water balloons.

"Mmm," Seto replied, closing his eyes as he leaned back into the warmth of the dragon's side. "Remind me of that when I decide it's time to strangle Wheeler."

The dragon chuckled. :The young one is good for you. They all are.:

"Mokuba seems to like them." The teen kept his eyes closed, not wanting to meet the pleading look in his little brother's gaze again. He wanted to join in the games, to make Mokuba smile... but he just couldn't. Even with Gozaburo gone for good, he couldn't take that step.

:Open your eyes, hatchling, and look at me.:

Seto could no more disobey that quiet voice than he could sprout wings and fly. As his eyes opened, he found himself staring into a pair of eyes as blue as his own, but warmer, far warmer, like a tropical sea.

:Look at my side, young one. What do you see:

"A dragon who needs to go on a diet," Seto replied dryly, ducking as a wingtip whapped him in the head.

:Try again, smart mouth.:

Seto looked at the white scales, frowning as he realized what the dragon meant. The scales... rippled somewhat, a silvery color differing just barely from the ones around them. Squinting, he made out the pattern-- the tracks of claw marks, long since healed.

"Scar tissue," the CEO breathed. "You have scars."

:I do. These scars will never fully heal. And when they're new, they catch, and pain, whenever you move too quick. But given time, and work, they stretch. They grow. It's painful at first, and it doesn't happen overnight. But there's no shame in them, either. They show that you've done the most important thing in fighting evil. You've survived. And your scars too, will stretch and change, Dragon Master. You need only be patient... and your friends will be patient with you.:

"They're not my friends," Seto grumbled, settling back against the warm bulk. "I suppose this is going to get completely out of hand..."

:Don't look at me. I suggest we just nap out here in the sunshine until dinner.:

The boy yawned. "Works for me..." His eyes drifted closed, and the two of them drifted off, oblivious to the noise around them. After all... they were safe, now... and home.